New York could be on the cusp of “serious changes” to education policy — if the state takes the plunge, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, one of nation’s most influential education researchers.
Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor emeritus, served as director of President Obama’s education policy transition team and was rumored as a choice for U.S. education secretary under Obama and New York City schools chancellor under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Now she runs the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank that is helping a number of states, including New York, implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015.
Darling-Hammond has argued that it’s not just students who should be held to rigorous standards. So should teachers, schools, districts and states. The education system must provide students the “opportunity to learn,” she says, and ensure families that schools have enough support.
“They need for you to be able to improve things, not just to measure them,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview this week.
ESSA could allow states to do that in a new way, she said. While No Child Left Behind focused tightly on outcomes such as test scores, ESSA gives states more flexibility to consider “inputs,” such as how much money is spent on each student, as they evaluate schools and figure out how to help them.
New York officials have not yet committed to a plan, but they’ve hinted that equity — in terms of resources, curriculum, and learning outcomes — could be a central focus.
So what exactly would that look like? We talked to Darling-Hammond, one of several experts working with the state, to figure out how New York could use the federal law to measure and promote equity.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is your take on Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and how she could shift the direction of federal education policy?
The way ESSA was written, it outlines an important federal role, it outlines a state role. It actually prohibits the secretary of education from making a whole set of decisions that are outlined, so regardless of what administration is in Washington, the law really limits the extent of federal involvement.
My suspicion is that states will be able to continue to implement the policies that they were aiming at before. The way the law was drafted, states have a lot of room, within certain parameters, to make their decisions. It’s hard to imagine that changing very much.
Some argue that her nomination changes the political landscape in education. Do you think the battle lines have been redrawn?
I just haven’t really studied what her views are, so I don’t know enough to know whether she falls in a particular camp or what her views on all those issues are … We know that she’s involved in [vouchers and school choice], but I don’t know her views about testing or her views about teachers. So it will be interesting, in a way, because she isn’t someone who’s been involved in the education profession. Probably there are many things that we don’t know her views about, and maybe she has not even yet formulated views on everything.
How much change does ESSA enable? When the dust settles here in New York — even if officials want to make radical change — will we end up with a system that looks similar to No Child Left Behind?
I think ESSA really does enable some serious changes. If a state really wants to develop a plan that looks a lot like No Child Left Behind, they could do that, but if they wanted to think more broadly about accountability measures that include both outcomes for students and learning opportunities that schools provide, they can do that. If a state wants to really evolve the kind of assessments that it uses, they can do that … And if a state wants to really make investments — and more equitable investments — in schools, there are several parts of the law that encourage and allow that to happen as well.
New York officials brought up the idea of creating “equity indicators” at the last Board of Regents meeting. What does that mean?
It could mean being very explicit and attentive to the requirements of the law that require publicizing the spending of different schools, which would highlight where there are adequate resources and where there may be inadequate resources.
The state could use indicators that are equity-oriented that illustrate, for example, what kind of learning opportunities students are getting in terms of curriculum, in terms of school climate, in terms of various kinds of program opportunities in different schools.
The law requires that … [the state] look at whether the resources that are needed to turn around a school are there, and are they adequate. And if not, they have to do something about it.
That would mean, for example, the state may need to provide more funding for a struggling school?
They might need to provide more funding. They might need to provide wraparound services for students who don’t have healthcare or [for] before and after-school care. It might mean that they decide the best intervention is to [provide] preschool. It might mean that they need to put in place literacy coaches or math coaches or mentor teachers.
There was no expectation in No Child Left Behind that resources would have to accompany those labels [on struggling schools]. There is an expectation in ESSA that resources and intervention have to accompany those identifications.
You don’t want to hold schools accountable for things that are out of their control. So the indicators you would use to identify a school in need of intervention or assistance would be the things that they can control … graduation rates or test scores or college- and career-readiness.
But if a state is concentrated on inputs — providing extra curriculum, such as arts or physical education, for instance, or improving teacher training — does that divert attention from student outcomes?
It’s not either or. It’s both and. The outcomes are going to be there because they’re required by law. We need to measure performance in English Language Arts and math. We need to measure English learner proficiency gains, graduation rates … But if you only have outcome data and you don’t have any data about what kids are experiencing and what they’re getting, then when you find that the outcomes are not adequate, you don’t actually know very much about how to improve.
You want high-quality accountability, and part of that accountability is also knowing what you need to do to fix things. Because otherwise you’re not being accountable to parents and to children. They need for you to be able to improve things, not just to measure them.
There’s an implicit assumption that having additional resources is an important way to fix schools. But aren’t there limits to what money alone can fix?
There is also a lot of evidence that additional resources, spent particularly on the education of low-income students does pay off in higher graduation rates, higher educational attainment, higher wages as adults, lower poverty rates. The caveat [is] if that money is spent on the right things. You want to spend the money on higher quality instruction. You want to spend it on wraparound services, not on swimming pools and other athletic fields, and other things that are not going to translate into better learning.
I would not make a case that we should throw money at every problem indiscriminately without thinking about what’s needed and what will work … But, at the end of the day, you need to be able to make the investments to make those improvements.
Another thing you have supported is a “dashboard” approach to accountability, where schools are given a number of data points instead of one overall rating, like an A-F grade. But couldn’t that be confusing for parents?
When kids come home from school with their report cards, they get some kind of a grade in each of their subject areas, so the parent knows: How is my kid doing in math and reading and science and social studies and physical education and maybe even behavior or citizenship? That’s very helpful because if you want to help your child learn, and if the teacher wants to focus on what the child needs, you need to know how they’re doing. I’ve never heard a parent who said, “Can you just give my first-grader a single rating and tell me how I rate against the other children in the class with no other details?” It’s not very helpful to move the child forward if you don’t have those specifics.
It’s the same kind of thing with schools. If you really want to know what’s going on at a school and where they’re succeeding and failing, I think parents are easily able to absorb four or five or six pieces of information.
You’ve said that America is obsessed with “popcorn reform.” What do you mean by that? How do your ideas differ?
We tend to change our path every time we have a new school board or legislature or superintendent or whatever. We go from one idea to the next idea. We also tend to get excited about small innovations: Let’s try something over here. Let’s try something over there. But we don’t have, in all cases, the tendency to see what’s working and scale it up.
So what are a few things that you would say have worked and that we should scale up?
We know, for example, that high-quality preschool education reduces the achievement gap before kids get to kindergarten. We know something about high-quality literacy programs that are successful over the long haul … We know something about high-quality mathematics instruction. We also know that kids need to be healthy in order to learn.
Those are kind of basics. They’re fundamental.
It sounds like what you’re saying is these are not necessarily super fun and glamorous, but they are the things that we have seen work over the long haul.
Yeah. And there are some super fun and glamorous things that one can sprinkle in there. There’s all kinds of interesting work going on with technology. People are working on gaming and new assessments and various things that are at the edge. And that’s good too, but we have to keep sort of a strong element of, let’s be sure everybody’s got the basics at a high-quality level.
Do you see New York as being on the vanguard of many of the reforms you have advocated?
I think it’s a little premature to know exactly where New York will end up in its plan. But certainly I’ve heard the Regents talking about caring about equity in their investments in schools.
I will say that they have been explicit in every conversation I’ve been a part of, with either the Regents or the state [education department] staff, in raising the equity issue and saying this is going to be a centerpiece of our plan.