Reform Bills Could Set Schools Up for Failure


President George W. Bush came to Washington promising Texas-style education reform. So, at his behest, the Senate and House produced bills providing for more testing, more money to help schools shape up and more pressure on those that don’t.

But on the eve of work in Congress to reconcile the two bills’ differences, serious doubts are emerging about their fairness and feasibility.

Essentially, a fiery national debate has erupted over how to define failure.

Although the goal is to identify schools where students most desperately need better instruction, independent analyses indicate the current House and Senate proposals actually would label far more schools unsuccessful than is warranted or practical.


In fact, new research suggests that if either the Senate or House rules had been applied to Texas or North Carolina in the 1990s, when schools in both states were recognized for exceptional achievement, virtually no school would have passed muster every year.

Criticism of the congressional proposals comes from across the political spectrum. And it has led to an 11th-hour scramble to come up with something better.

. Much is at stake, both politically and academically. While running for president, Bush repeatedly promised to “leave no child behind” and to stop “subsidizing failure.”

But fears are growing that, in its zeal to accomplish those goals, Congress may overreach and squander the political consensus on the importance of boosting student achievement. Or that the new laws will become so watered down as to become meaningless.


“The president wants vigorous but workable accountability,” said Sandy Kress, a Dallas lawyer who is serving as Bush’s chief negotiator on the education reform bill.

In the search for such a delicately balanced policy, the administration has turned for help to some unlikely allies: teacher unions and other groups that Republicans usually categorize as defenders of the status quo.

One option, Kress said, would be to scrap both the House and Senate formulas and adhere more strictly to the accountability system developed in Texas, which was featured prominently in Bush’s campaign.

“We’re used to doing it the way we did it in Texas . . . which has caused us some heartburn with the language we’ve seen in the bills so far,” Kress said.

In the first year of the Texas program, schools had only to show, based on test scores, that 25% of their students were academically proficient--a modest target that nine in 10 schools were able to hit.

Kress has suggested that might be a reasonable goal for the federal legislation. Identifying more schools than that would discourage educators and exhaust resources, he said.

As it stands, the House and Senate bills would require unremitting progress by schools every year so that eventually 100% of students are proficient in math and reading.

Critics, liberals as well as conservatives, say that goal should not be shortchanged.


“What we should be doing is saying what we want in terms of performance goals and then let the chips fall where they may,” said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration advisor who works for a coalition of centrist Democrats.

The heart of the issue is how to define, in technical terms, how bad is bad.

In Washington-speak, success is called “adequate yearly progress.” But how much progress must a school make each year toward the long-term goal of having all students proficient in math and reading?

Under current law, states are required to define “adequate” for schools receiving federal aid to help disadvantaged students, but the results have been all over the map.

For example, for the 1998-99 school year, South Dakota contended that none of its schools receiving such funds were low-achieving. Michigan, meanwhile, reported that 76% of such schools had failed to make sufficient progress. In California, the figure was 34%.

By comparison, the formulas Congress is considering are more demanding and would apply to all schools. Even high-performing schools would be subject to sanctions if they faltered even briefly.

The Senate proposal demands that every student be proficient--with the precise definition left up to the state--in reading and math within 10 years. The House would give districts 12 years.

Punishing schools “will simply force states to dumb down the definition of what is proficient,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer. “Let’s hope we can get really, really good and get to 70%, but we’re never going to get 100%.”


Romer said the 725,000-student Los Angeles district would be severely punished by the bills, as written. The district doesn’t have enough room to allow students at low-performing schools to transfer elsewhere. Moreover, it could not afford to pay for them to be bused.

“You have to be willing to face reality,” he said.

California already has a relatively strict accountability system that identifies and sanctions low-performing schools. But state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin said neither the state’s program nor the proposed federal rules will do much to boost student achievement.

“We’re trying to figure out how to punish people when they don’t learn instead of figuring out how to help more kids learn,” she said.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a key member of the conference committee that will wrestle with the two bills beginning this week, acknowledged the technical problems. Still, he said, he will not back away from setting rigorous standards.

“There’s probably more schools failing to achieve than school administrators and governors and congressmen and a lot of other people want to admit,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we should deny that they exist.”

Still, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who will chair the conference committee, said building a consensus on a final bill won’t be easy.

“Fairness is like beauty,” he said. “It’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Although the debate can quickly become arcane, its impact is not.

Both bills require students to take state-selected math and reading tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Schools also would be required to keep track of scores according to students’ race, economic and language status and whether they have a disability.

The House bill is straightforward. Each school and each group would have to make enough progress in math and reading each year to reach 100% proficiency in 12 years. The more complex Senate bill averages scores over three years, allowing states to give different weights to the scores of different groups. But each group would have to make at least a 1% gain every year.

Both bills would give schools that don’t satisfy those formulas more money to try to improve, with the understanding that those failing to do so could face penalties, including being shut down.

Spending is a flash point. Democrats say schools need more money to attract and train teachers, improve curriculum and repair schools. “If we’re going to make this effort . . . you can’t do it on the cheap,” Miller said.

Republicans agree that an increase from the $18 billion in the federal budget for the upcoming school year is needed. But they say the Democrats’ plans to spend $24 billion or more are excessive.

Another hot question is to what degree Washington should prescribe how that money is spent.

Although Bush has said he wants Congress to finish its work before going home Aug. 4 for its summer recess, those involved say the chances of that happening are slim.

Meanwhile, researchers such as Thomas J. Kane, a UCLA public policy professor, spin out some disturbing scenarios. Kane and his colleagues simulated the two bills’ effects on schools in Texas and North Carolina, using data from 1994 to 1999.

Despite widely recognized educational achievements in both states, Kane found that under the House bill nearly every elementary school in both states would have been penalized for their performance and forced to offer transfers at public expense.

In fact, if the House bill had been in effect in the 1990s, three-quarters of the schools in both states would have had to be shut down.

Under the Senate version, which some education activists consider too lenient, about 80% of the schools in each state would have had to let students transfer at some point. A quarter would have been shut down.

In Virginia, the American Assn. of School Administrators analyzed three years’ worth of test scores for about 1,000 elementary schools. The organization determined that only 20% of them could meet the House requirements. Those failing included four of the state’s 10 highest-performing campuses.

The House formula, based on annual test scores, “does not predict success or failure,” said Bruce Hunter, a governmental affairs specialist for the group. “Test scores are too volatile.”

On the other hand, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group, worries that the bills will be watered down. The goal, she said, should be closing the achievement gap between affluent and poor students, and between whites and nonwhites.

To her mind, neither bill is perfect, but the House bill comes closer to accomplishing that.

“The most important issue is how you define school success and school failure,” she said. “That’s where the rubber hits the road.”