By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - It’s not often that the good folks who run the nation’s state education departments are publicly praised for a job well done. But then there’s Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe.
A few weeks back, Diane Ravitch -- the highly regarded education critic, gadfly, born-again enemy of standardized testing and author -- called Holcombe a “hero” in her blog for refusing the federal government’s offer of a waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act. Specifically: publicly hammering U.S. education policy for the way it hammers teachers and students.
“Most people go along with the crowd even when doing so violates their sense of personal and professional ethics. Not Commissioner Holcombe," wrote Ravitch a former Bush administration official who once supported NCLB. "If our nation had more state commissioners like her, it would save our children from a mindless culture of test and punish."
That’s one reason why Holcombe, 48, refused the waiver that more than 40 other states have, so far, accepted from the Obama administration as a way to buy time to comply with the core tenets of No Child Left Behind (including the one that requires 100 percent of the students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.) By rejecting the waiver, the former high school principal, all but guarantees that Vermont’s schools will be labeled "low performing" by the U.S. Department of Education.
The consequences, says Holcombe, are not yet entirely clear. But there is an upside: By refusing the waiver, Holcombe will not have to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, which she said could result in scores of educators being unfairly fired.
To be sure, Vermont is a small state and can survive the NCLB’s more onerous sanctions. But her rejection of the waiver, in a letter to her constituents last month, put the spotlight on the flaws in the act most administrators are unwilling to discuss so publicly.
In an interview with Reuters, Holcombe explained why she rejected the waiver and, among other things, what could be done to fix NCLB. Edited excerpts:
Q: How do you feel about Ravitch calling you a hero?
A: I am not a hero. The heroes are in the classrooms and working for public safety. I am just a person with the podium for now. Calling me a hero diminishes the work of people who are taking real risks and making deep sacrifices for the public good.
Q: Most states have gone along with the waiver program—why not you?
A: It would make something that doesn’t work for us even harder because of the requirements for teacher evaluations. We have very small schools and class sizes. If your class size is small, the measures are unreliable. We would be taking consequential actions on teachers based on bad data. The problem basically is that if one child in your school doesn’t pass, that school has to be labeled low performing. That’s a uniform standard. So if a child’s house burns down, and they still come to school to take the test, they may be stressed out and may not pass.
Q: Are you worried about Vermont now being labeled “low performing” as a result of refusing the waiver?
A: We know we are doing well in Vermont with many children. There was a study by the U.S. Department of Education released last fall on trends in international math and science assessments and it put us seventh in the world in math and fourth in science compared to the other states and 47 different countries. I think by any measure we do pretty well overall.
Q: Are there areas that do worry you and need improving?
A: We see some patterns that really concern us. One that we have been thinking about is that our students with affluent backgrounds outscore (the standards) and are accelerating away (from those standards). But our students living in poverty are pretty stagnant in terms of the gains they’ve made. Not only are they underperforming, but they are not improving. We are also seeing a gender gap.
Q: So what consequences do Vermont schools face by not taking advantage of the waiver? Under No Child Left Behind, schools identified as “low performing” could become subject to restructuring or takeover or be forced to move students to other schools.
A: Nothing formal has been said to us about consequences. But in conversations, the U.S. Department of Education has told us that “the sky won’t fall.” And several people have agreed with us that a waiver from NCLB does not make sense for Vermont. With respect to sanctions, they were designed to target large urban areas with large numbers of students and multiple schools within a district with concentrated poverty. These sanctions would never have much of an impact in the overwhelming majority of our districts. Now that basically all (our) public schools are labeled low performing, the NCLB school choice provisions are for the most part irrelevant.
Q: Congress is a few years away from tackling the law again, but how should NCLB be changed?
A: What we really need is better data to help us figure out where the learning is breaking down (but) we’re spending a tremendous amount of time and energy on tests that don’t let us do that. We look forward to reallocating resources from annual testing towards development of a state and local approach to accountability. Test costs are high and rising. Under NCLB we have to test every year in grades 3-8 in both math and English language arts. Under our previous state model, we only tested in three grades. All those resources that go to standardized testing in those additional grades are resources that are not spent on professional development or to support assessments that give teachers the richer information they need to figure out how to move each student’s learning to the next level.
Q: Some states also strongly oppose the controversial Common Core curriculum guidelines. Where do you stand?
A: We haven’t seen the heavy pushback from residents here against the Common Core. I think it’s because we are not evaluating teachers based on students test scores.
Q: Have you been in touch with( U.S. Education Secretary) Arne Duncan on the problems with No Child Left Behind and the waivers?
A: No, not recently. We haven’t had any direct communication. (But) I think Arne Duncan would agree that NCLB is broken.
(Editing by Hank Gilman)