National Teachers Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform
by Monty Neill, FairTest
July 14, 2009
The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights (CCCR) recently released a report attacking the role of unions in "education reform." National Teachers Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform focuses on how the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have addressed school assessment and accountability. In doing so, it criticizes reform proposals that are, in fact, shared widely beyond the unions, including vigorous support from numerous civil rights organizations.
The CCCR report should be dismissed for lack of evidence, misrepresentations, and misleading conclusions. It reads as if it were designed to score political points for the controversial “No Child Left Behind” law, which CCCR helped write, rather than to inform and advance the debate.
It is sadly ironic that CCCR has issued a full-throated defense of provisions in the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law that have been shown by independent researchers to have degraded the quality of instruction most severely for low-income and minority students. Rather than work with other groups, including teachers unions, to transform NCLB into a tool for real improvement and equity, CCCR has chosen to defend a law that has failed to achieve its goal of closing achievement gaps between blacks and whites.
In the report, CCCR misrepresents proposals for developing state assessment systems that include local assessments, then outrageously equates such proposals to the positions of segregationists. In doing so, CCCR ignores the more than 20 civil rights groups that indicated their support for including local assessments in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, now named No Child Left Behind, NCLB) by signing the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB. It ignores a similar number of such groups that signed a letter to Congressional education committee leaders endorsing local assessments. It also ignores the fact that Reps. George Miller and "Buck" McKeon included, in their proposal to reauthorize NCLB, a plan to fund pilot projects in 15 states to develop such mixed local and state systems. This section of CCCRs' report appears designed to stampede Congress and the Administration into opposing local assessments. It should be disregarded.
CCCR attacks when it should praise the unions for opposing sections of the law that have proven to be harmful or that lack evidence they will improve education. These include privatizing control of schools and the use of student test scores to determine teacher pay.
Organizations that signed the Joint Statement and participate in the Forum on Educational Accountability may be shocked to find that CCCR assigns full credit (or blame) for these joint endeavors to the National Education Association. Perhaps it hopes to isolate the NEA by such misrepresentations, then push groups into disavowing the Statement and other FEA work, thereby weakening efforts to bring needed changes to ESEA.
NCLB’s authors chose the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as the yardstick to measure students’ actual progress or lack thereof. NAEP results clearly show that our students’ rate of improvement has slowed since the law was adopted. CCCR could have invested its energy in examining such data and working with others to design a better law. Instead, it has chosen to disregard a virtual mountain of evidence of NCLB’s flaws. By doing so, it aligns with those who base their support on ideology, not evidence.
This article is on the FairTest website at http://www.fairtest.org/critical-analysis-citizens-commission-civil-rights
The CCCR report is on the web at http://www.cccr.org/doc/Natl%20Teachers%20Unions%20and%20the%20Struggle%20Over%20School%20Reform.pdf
The Joint Statement and FEA materials are at http://www.edaccountability.org
A detailed analysis of the assessment discussion in the CCCR report
1) Local assessments
While CCCR and its chair and lead author, William Taylor, criticize both unions, the sharpest attacks are reserved for the National Education Association.
The report claims: "[The NEA] is arguing for allowing school districts and schools to adopt differing assessment systems, making comparisons between schools difficult, if not impossible. The bottom line is that the NEA would permit different standards for different children, a system that was prevalent during the days of racial segregation in schools" (p. 16).
Equating the NEA's position with that of segregationists is outrageous. Moreover, the report offers no serious analysis or examination of the proposals to back up its claim. It also ignores the fact that more than 20 civil rights groups signed a letter supporting local assessments as described in draft legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The language of the draft bill, presented by House Education Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member "Buck" McKeon, said that to obtain funding under this provision, a state would have to "demonstrate that it has developed a process to certify that the locally developed assessments are aligned with State standards, are comparable and measure the same level and range of rigorous skills and content across all local educational agencies." That is, they could not be used for accountability if they allowed different standards in different districts, contrary to what CCCR claims.
The August 7, 2007, letter from the civil rights groups said, "Multiple forms of assessment include traditional statewide tests as well as other assessments, developed and used locally or statewide, that include a broader range of formats, such as writing samples, research projects, and science investigations, as well as collections of student work over time." A list of prominent academics signed a letter in support of the civil rights groups’ statement. One signer was Linda Darling-Hammond, who chaired the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, which CCCR relies on to define high quality teaching.
Taylor's group also claims that in the proposal to use local assessments, "The NEA position is more far reaching than that of either side in the multiple measures debate." Again, the letter from the civil rights groups and the draft language from Miller and McKeon contradict this. Further, in October 2004, several dozen education and civil rights groups released the Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind, which stated as one of its 14 recommendations for overhauling NCLB's assessment and accountability structures: "Help states develop assessment systems that include district and school-based measures in order to provide better, more timely information about student learning." The Statement has now been signed by 151 national civil rights, education, disability, parent, religious and civic organizations (on the web at http://www.edaccountability.org
The Forum on Educational Accountability (which I chair) builds on and promotes the ideas in the Joint Statement. FEA commissioned an independent panel of national assessment and education experts to offer proposals for a new assessment approach for NCLB reauthorization. The Expert Panel clearly supports the inclusion of local assessments in accountability, arguing that such evidence can be part of growth systems (also at http://www.edaccountability.org
The CCCR report mischaracterizes the Joint Statement and the Forum. At footnote 30, CCCR calls the Statement an “NEA statement.” It is not. NEA helped draft the Statement, it posts it on its website, and has drawn on it for its own positions. But the Statement was and is a joint effort. At note 31, CCCR claims the Forum on Educational Accountability is part of NEA. Again, it is not. Note 31 also takes FEA positions out of context. FEA developed legislative language in 2007 for reauthorization of ESEA. That language and how it amends NCLB provides the context which CCCR ignores; it is on the web at http://www.edaccountability.org
In short, CCCR misrepresents the proposals of a broad-based coalition, pretends they belong to the teachers unions alone, and then attacks the unions. The report ignores the wide range of organizations, including many civil rights groups, and expert opinion that support the proposals.
It is reasonable to express concern over possibly flawed implementation, or question how comparability and local variation can be balanced effectively. Such questions can and should be answered before such assessments are used for accountability purposes in states as part of a reauthorized ESEA. Neither the Joint Statement nor (to my knowledge) the NEA says that standardized statewide tests should not be included in a revised law; they should and no doubt will be. But the CCCR report appears to be more interested in mischaracterization and an effort to preclude discussion and to pressure Congress and the Administration into rejecting proposals for local assessments.
2) CCCR's misguided criticism of unions for opposing flawed and dangerous aspects of NCLB
The report claims the NEA professed to support NCLB in part by launching its "Great Public Schools for Every Child" campaign, which says Taylor, seemed to advocate the same principles as NCLB," to wit (p 14):
- “Support common sense standards and accountability as well as adequate and equitable funding and resources for public schools;
- Encourage districts to help close the achievement gap by investing in public schools and holding teachers, administrators, parents, students, and elected officials responsible for the success of our children and our schools;
- Encourage states and districts to take the lead in setting and implementing high standards to ensure student success; and
- Support multiple measures of student success that help prepare students for work and life.”
The CCCR report continues: "Yet more privately, NEA was advising its local affiliates how to fight against these very principles by noncompliance." While NCLB correlates to some extent with the NEA positions on paper (e.g., NCLB calls for use of multiple measures that include assessments of higher order thinking skills, in precisely the same language that existed in the 1994 ESEA law), in practice the state tests and the Department of Education's enforcement precluded the use of multiple measures and assessment of higher order thinking skills. Nor did the promised money come through, not even enough, in many cases, to implement the law. More generally, the law focused on punishment via testing, “adequate yearly progress” and sanctions –rather than support for school improvement, which the NEA (among many others) called for.
Taylor's group then attacks the NEA and AFT for their critiques of the limited "growth" models that the Department approved and the flaws in the Miller-McKeon draft. CCCR states that criticism of these narrow and flawed approaches means that the NEA and AFT oppose meaningful reform. The CCCR report, moreover, presents no evidence that NCLB actually creates meaningful learning opportunities and school improvement. Perhaps this is because such evidence does not exist.
CCCR criticizes the NEA for supporting less mandated testing. But in a conversation I had with Taylor prior to passage of NCLB, he agreed that the law should not mandate testing in every grade, in part because it was likely to ensure lower quality tests than could be implemented if there were more limited testing. More recently, he has taken seemingly contradictory positions such as criticizing the low quality of state tests while attacking the unions for opposing the high-stakes uses of such tests.
In a brief section on accountability, CCCR attacks the unions for opposing NCLB’s ultimate sanctions, saying the NEA proposed to "Eliminate four of the five options specified in NCLB for sanctioning schools in corrective action. Districts could not reopen the school as a charter; replace teachers or support personnel; turn the school over to a private company; or turn the school over to the state." Taylor's report ignores the wealth of evidence showing that these approaches have not achieved anything more than anecdotal "success." Even the pro-NCLB Fordham Foundation released a report critical of these options. How to dramatically improve schools that have not been successful requires a more thoughtful approach than that provided by NCLB.
CCCR also says the NEA sought to "Prohibit the use of test scores in employee evaluations." Fortunately, this is true. Research shows that payment for performance is rare for professionals in other fields, has had harmful consequences in other fields such as medical care, and has not worked in education when it has been tried. There is no evidence that payment for boosting test scores would do anything more than further inflate state exam results, producing misleading evidence on how well children were doing, while intensifying teaching to the test and further narrowing the curriculum. There is zero evidence this will help low-income or minority-group children. Again CCCR criticizes unions for taking positions consistent with good evidence. Civil rights advocates should do no less.
PS: A blog post by John Thompson also critiques CCCR claims on payment for boosting test scores and related points. It is at http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2009/07/thompson-with-friends-like-these.html
(Additional references are available on request.)
On the FairTest website at http://www.fairtest.org/critical-analysis-citizens-commission-civil-rights
Monty Neill, Ed.D.
Deputy & Interim Executive Director
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Boston, MA 02108
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