A bittersweet victory on accountability

MTA President Barbara Madeloni issued the following statement on July 17 about the Every Child Achieves Act, which was passed by the U.S. Senate on July 16.

Yesterday the U.S. Senate approved passage of the Every Child Achieves Act, a rewrite and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There were supporters and detractors on all sides of this complex bill. The vote was 81-17.

It is a bittersweet victory to applaud the power of school accountability going back to the states, should this bill become law.

The bill continues yearly testing in grades three through eight and once in high school, but leaves it to states to determine how to use those tests for school accountability. It removes the authority of the federal government to demand that teacher evaluations be connected to student test scores and gives more authority to states to determine specific standards and curriculum.

In giving more authority to states, the bill loosens constraints on how funds will be spent, though fortunately the Senate rejected a voucher amendment. The Senate measure now goes to a conference committee, where senators and members of the House will mesh their bills and develop a final piece of legislation. If approved, that bill will have to be signed or vetoed by President Barack Obama. If Obama vetoes it, Congress would have to override the veto for the bill to become law.

It is a bittersweet victory to applaud the power of school accountability going back to the states, should this bill become law. While it would allow us to organize locally and make the demands we want for our students and our schools, others have noted that it would mean we have 50 battles to fight instead of one – and that some states are especially weak in their readiness to fight. As Diane Ravitch notes in this post, the bill continues to ignore the real problems of racial and economic injustice that plague our schools and communities.

The debate on the ECAA exposed some critical information about elected officials and about the work we need to do.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored an amendment that 41 Democrats supported to essentially continue the most punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind, as the current version of the ESEA is known. The amendment proposed a change in what student test scores are used for accountability, from all students to subgroups, but retained the use of test scores as a basis for labeling and punishing schools. In my conversation with Warren, her concern for traditionally underserved students, which is noble, was distorted by a seeming unwillingness to accept what so many teachers and parents are saying: that the use of testing for accountability is narrow-minded, undermines meaningful teaching and learning, and shifts the focus from the real issues our students and communities face.

The amendment failed and was not included in the final bill, but Senator Warren's vote against the final bill was based in large measure on her concerns for what assurances there would be that funds would go where they are most needed. Fellow Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey joined Warren in supporting the amendment, but voted in favor of the final bill. In the end, Warren was one of only three Democrats to vote against the ECAA.

Now that the Senate has passed the ECAA, we need to talk about resources and about the larger issues of race and class. But we need to acknowledge that our efforts must focus on Democrats as well as Republicans. Indeed, some of the worst excesses of corporate “reform” have been supported by elected officials who call themselves our allies.

We need to start now and be relentless in getting our stories to Senators Warren and Markey about how testing hurts students and learning.

At the state level, we have an opportunity to use the full power of our union and our alliances to take back control of our public schools and stop the testing madness. Let’s double down on our efforts to pass H. 340, calling for a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of testing.

And at all levels, let’s pick up the new business item passed at the NEA RA and the ones we passed at our Annual Meeting in which we develop our knowledge and activism around the effects of racism and poverty on our students and our communities. Let’s take control through supporting the opt-out movement, and let’s work with parents, students and communities to demand the schools every child deserves.