Education Department ESEA Blueprint: Science Optional

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Publication date: 
29 March 2010

The Department of Education recently unveiled “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (ESEA), the most recent version of which is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While the blueprint focuses in part on science, the accountability regime that only requires schools to count reading and math test scores remains.

The Department is pegging much of its effort to reform schools—and to a significant degree the funding of schools—on state efforts around academic standards. The National Governors Association (NGA) has taken the lead on developing draft standards for reading and math in cooperation with 48 states and Washington, DC. Texas and Alaska did not participate.

There are no NGA draft science standards at present.

Under NCLB, schools are required to test students in reading and math. Scores from those tests are used to indicate whether or not a school is improving, or to use the language of NCLB, demonstrating “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).” Beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, schools were required to test for science, but the results of those tests do not contribute to the AYP measure. States may choose to use science scores to show they are making AYP, but are not required to do so.

The Department’s new blueprint keeps this system in place:

“States will continue to implement statewide science standards and aligned assessments in specific gradespans, and may include such assessments – as well as statewide assessments in other subjects, such as history – in their accountability system.”

“States will receive formula grants to develop and implement high-quality assessments aligned with college- and career-ready standards in English language arts and mathemat­ics that accurately measure student academic achievement and growth, provide feedback to support and improve teaching, and measure school success and progress. States may also use funds to develop or implement high-quality, rigorous statewide assessments in other academic or career and technical subjects, high school course assessments, English language proficiency assessments, and interim or formative assessments.”

While many in the science and education communities hoped that science would be a required component of a school’s measure of success, the Department may have in fact lessened the likelihood of including science test results by allowing schools to count additional subjects. It remains unclear what, if any, incentives schools have to include science assessments in their “accountability system.”

Later, the blueprint elaborates on its proposal for competitive grants for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. States would receive funds, then distribute them at a local level via a second level of competitive grants for “implementing high-quality instruction in at least mathematics or science and may also include technology or engineering.” Awardees would use funds to:

“Provide effective professional development for teachers and school leaders; high-quality state- or locally-determined curricula, instructional materials, and assessments; and interventions that ensure that all students are served appropriately. Subgrantees may use program funds to integrate evidence-based, effective mathematics or science programs into the teaching of other core academic subjects and for technology-based strategies to improve STEM education.”

Again, the blueprint relies on state standards; “Priority [in distributing competitive STEM grants] will be given to states that have adopted common, state-developed, college- and career-ready standards.”

Other components of the blueprint are significant.

The Department of Education is moving away from the NCLB goal that all students be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. Instead the blueprint calls on states, districts, and schools to “aim for the ambitious goal of all students graduating or on track to graduate from high school ready for college and a career by 2020.”

Schools that fail to show improvement towards this goal face a more flexible system of consequences than existed under NCLB. The blueprint jettisons what many considered a one-size-fits-all approach to improving chronically underperforming schools. Grants will be dispersed to failing schools to implement one of four “models” of reform.

The “transformation model” calls for replacing the principal and boosting instruction time. The “turnaround model” would replace the principal, and at least 50 percent of school staff, with gains for instruction time. The “restart model” closes the school, and reopens it under “an effective charter operator, charter management organization, or education management organization.” The final and most drastic “school closure model” permanently shutters the school, and enrolls students at other district schools.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented the blueprint to House and Senate education committees on March 17, the response was uncharacteristically warm and bipartisan in goodwill.

Members of Congress, with few exceptions, thanked Duncan for the blueprint and for transparency in its drafting. Duncan won praise for redirecting the focus of ESEA away from failing schools, to acknowledging that successful schools deserve additional flexibility and resources. The topic of science education was raised in both committees, but in passing, without anything of note being said. Members pledged to continue working with the Secretary as they move towards ESEA reauthorization in this session—a prospect that is uncertain with midterm elections approaching in November.

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