The Myth of the Carrot and the Stick

Why does our national educational debate continue to fluctuate between reward and punishment – for teachers, principals, parents and ultimately children? What can we do about it?

This past year Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – changing the name from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This apparently innocuous name change signaled major alterations in the Department of Education’s Theory of Change for the nations’ schools and students.

NCLB, despite its flaws, was important and innovative in its day because it called for schools and districts to be held accountable for the predictability of failure among a wide array of demographic groups – divided by gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disabilities, and primary language. Previous to NCLB, schools and districts were held accountable for overall results, but not for results disaggregated in this way. NCLB was a wakeup call for educators who would now be accountable for addressing the achievement gaps between various groupings of students. In the end, the NCLB model proved to be negative, punitive, demoralizing and overly simplistic when it came to making meaningful changes in educational practice across the nation.

In contrast, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is about success for all students, despite race/ethnicity, zip code, or economic status. States are given more flexibility to devise testing or to join consortia of states adopting a common testing framework – with a strong bias toward measuring mastery and capacity to think and do meaningful work. Struggling schools are provided more resources and support for improvement, using evidence-based strategies. States are required to measure the following: 1) reading and math test scores; 2) English language proficiency test scores; 3) high school graduation rates; and 4) a state-selected academic measure for elementary and middle schools. They are also required to measure at least one school-quality factor such as Kindergarten readiness, college readiness, school climate and safety, and chronic absenteeism.

ESSA is only a little more than a year old at this point, but it has already begun to change the dialogue between the federal, state and local agencies from punishment to support. This bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA must be given a chance to work. There are many signs of progress such as: 1) more collaboration between the early childhood, K-12 and higher education sectors to align expectations and to build bridges for children and youth; 2) greater emphasis on treating parents as partners in educating their children; 3) use of experiential, project based learning and career pathways; and 4) a number of states have developed common standards (e.g. Common Core) and testing methodologies (e.g., Smarter Balanced Assessment) that are based on best practices.

ESSA also has a strong focus on equity – understanding that, in a society with enormous disparities of income, stability, discrimination, exposure to adverse childhood events, and widely divergent school quality, students must be provided “what they need” in order to be successful. Equity goes beyond equality.

It seems clear that we are in uncharted waters, and many of us have a great deal of anxiety about what comes next. But there is no reason to despair. No matter who you are, you can get involved in supporting our children who are our future. Stay informed. Go to school board meetings, participate in the Local Control Funding Formula planning process, visit your children’s schools, volunteer, vote for better funding for schools, and most of all expect excellence of your children and their teachers. At the end of the day it will be district, city, county and state leadership that makes things happen for our children. Let’s get active and make a difference.

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