Reframe Podcast: Episode 24

Educational Policy: History and Trends - "Part 1"

A. Saultz

In this episode, EHS Professor Andrew Saultz speaks about the history and trends of educational policy.
Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University.

In this episode, we will try to untangle to complicated subject of educational policy, which seems to continually be a source of frustration and stress among many educators today.

And we’re where with Andrew Saultz, an assistant professor of educational leadership, to understand what’s actually happening in today’s educational climate, how we got here, and how this issue might eventually evolve.

Dr. Saultz, thanks for being here. Can we start at the beginning?  Why is this an important time to be looking at educational policy? 

Andrew Saultz:

I think it is a good time to talk to folks in schools. So No Child Left Behind was the dominate federal law in schools from 2002 until this academic year. So the 2017 – 2018 year, if that makes sense. Starting in September. And at the end of the Obama Administration, congress passed something called the Every Student Succeeds Act. And that law is a re-authorization of the major federal law in education. So that replaces No Child Left Behind. So the Every Student Succeeds Act is being implemented for the 1st time this year in Ohio schools. And what that did is it gave states a little bit more decision making in terms of what to include in their accountability systems. 

So when I say accountability systems, that’s how the government tracks school progress and decides if a school or district is doing its job. So one of the things that the Every Student Succeeds Act asks states to do is to decide what non-academic indicator they will include. 

So one of the critiques of No Child Left Behind, the old system, was that it just focused on reading and math test scores for students. So naturally policy makers say, well, if that’s the critique we’ll just include more stuff in the accountability system. And so they said, states, what we want you to do is pick a non-academic indicator to include in your school accountability system.

So examples of non-academic indicators were things like school climate, so asking the faculty and the students how safe they felt, how comfortable they felt. You could include things like discipline, so you would track how many suspensions and expulsions, and then disaggregate that by race, for example. 

And so they were give all these choices, and so Ohio in the past year has gone through a process of deciding what they want to include and they decided on attendance. And so the idea is that they will report attendance and specifically track individuals who are chronically absent as a way of trying to improve getting students to schools more frequently, for example. And so this year is the first year they have rolled that out and were fully functioning under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

James Loy:

So that’s really sort of the major way that the Every Student Succeeds Act is now different from No Child Left Behind. What lead to that? What was the impetus for that change in that direction? 

Andrew Saultz:

So a big part of the critique of the Obama Administration was that the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went beyond his constitutional powers and what the law allowed him to do to shape state policy. So what the Every Student Succeeds Act did and what congress did was to limit the power of the Secretary of Education by writing in provisions that say the federal government can’t establish standards, for example. That states should be able to decide what standards students should know at what grade levels. And so, really, what we are seeing is a return of a lot of the power to states that the federal government had taken over the last 10+ years.

James Loy:

Is that good? Is that . . . do educators and administrators see that as a positive thing? Or as a win in anyway?

Andrew Saultz:

Yeah, I think . . . I mean, a lot of school leaders that I talk with . . .  the state and federal government are both mainly dominated by individuals who have never been in schools in a professional manor. And so I think shifting the focus to the state level allows more variance. So like when you establish national policy, you kind of have to think about all the states, where as . . . states are really, really different and so by allowing the states to make those decisions you can customize them to a larger degree.

Now, historically the federal government has gotten involved because local districts, and states to a lesser degree have not provided equitable educational opportunities for all students. So a larger portion of what the federal government spends its time doing is thinking about marginalized groups, particularly based on race and class, and ways to make sure that schools are providing opportunities for all students. So a lot of the federal funding, for example, is for special education or for programs for students living at or below the poverty line. 

And so, to that degree, historically, states have not proven that they necessarily address the needs of all kids, which is why the federal government has become more involved overtime.

James Loy:

Yeah, that’s makes sense. So basically the federal government looked at where the states might have been lacking in certain areas, or not doing well and stepped in to intervene.

Andrew Saultz:

Yeah. And a perfect example of that is desegregation. So the supreme court ruled that segregation is inherently unequal through Brown vs the Board and states . . . I mean the national guard literally had to go in to make sure that states allowed students of color into white schools because the states were not doing that. And had no intention of doing that. And so that’s an example where the federal government said, well, education is not in the constitution and so constitutional scholars will say, well, the federal government should have a limited role because if something is not explicit in the constitution, that’s not a power that the federal government has. 

The counter argument to that is, well, states have proven that they don’t serve all students well, and the federal government’s job is to ensure that equality of educational opportunity.

James Loy:

So if you have the federal government creating educational policy, especially historically intervening where it felt it needed to. But then also state that mandate policy well. Has that created a tension? Or does make for any inconsistencies or frustration from teachers who may not know which mandate will be coming from where or does it make for a lack of stability? 

Andrew Saultz:

Yeah. I think you’ve seen that a lot in the last few years in the state of Ohio. There is a 3-year time period where we use different standardized tests every single year. And so if we accept the premise that standardized tests are a good measure of school quality, and you are changing the test all the time. You could imagine school leaders and teachers kind of throwing their hands up and saying I don’t even know what to expect next year. How do I participate in this system? 

So I think the tension between the federal and the state government perhaps allows individuals -- and I think Ohio did a reasonably good job at reaching out to Ed leaders about how to be involved in the discussion to reshape the accountability system. But I think, more than anything, what I hear is that leaders want a stable system. Because we have not seen a lot of stability in our accountability policy recently.

James Loy:

So where we are right now is that No Child Left Behind has been effectively replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. But what I have heard from some educators and administrators is that schools are still existing in the shadow of a culture created by NCLB. So for someone from an outsider perspective, No Child Left Behind is a phase this is constantly thrown about. I have heard it for years. Was that really a huge fundamental shift in thinking about and regulating education as it seems to be. Was No Child Left Behind  really this big turning point? 

Andrew Saultz:

I would argue yes. So the first major federal education law is called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA. And that was passed in 1965 as part of Johnson’s war on poverty. And that mostly was money allocated for programs for students living at or below the poverty line. And so the federal government initially said we are just going to put this additional money for states and schools to educate poor students because they might need additional resources. The classic example is free and reduced price lunch. That if a student is hungry, they probably aren’t going to learn very well. Well, I can certainly relate to that. When I am hungry I can’t focus well either. That law, like many large federal laws, has been updated approximately every 10 years. NCLB is just the reauthorization of ESEA. 

But the reason why people bring it up all the time was 1) it was kind of the current law for the past 15 years. And so it was the existing law. But secondly it was a major shift in the philosophy of the federal government.

George W. Bush, when he ran for president in 2000 he was governor of Texas at the time and he said that, look what we have done with the schools in Texas. They called it the “Texas Miracle” because they said we will set high standards. We will test all out schools. We will publicize the data by race and class, so that we can highlight any inequities based on test scores across these groups. And then we will punish schools that don’t do well.

And so part of his campaign was saying I want to do what I did in Texas nationally. So No Child Left Behind, which was supported by republicans and democrats alike. A lot of people tie it to Bush, understandably so because he ran on it, but Senator Edward Kennedy was a co-sponsor of the bill – one of the more liberal people in the Senate at the time. So approximately 80% of people voted for this law and civil rights activists argue that this is a way to highlight educational inequities. A lot of conservatives said that this is a way to hold our schools accountable. 

And so, I think you hear about it because the federal government then mandated testing to a degree that they had not before. So one of the things that No Child Left Behind does is say every student in 3rd – 8th grade needs to take a reading and a math test. And those test scores will be reported publicly. And then once in high school. And the states can decide what’s on that test, but if you receive any federal funds you have to follow this rule. 

Interestingly enough the Every Student Succeeds Act continues that. So 3rd – 8th graders and once in high school will be tested in reading and math.

James Loy:

How do you see this evolving forward then? What do you think is going to happen in the future as we move forward?

Andrew Saultz:

So Ohio . . .  one of the other things it looked at including in the accountability system and decided not to was school climate. And there’s literature on school climate that shows that if you have a positive school climate, it leads to both academic and non-academic outcomes that are desirable. So, for example, if students feel safe, if they feel welcome, if they feel valued, they tend to do better in classes, which, again, might seem self-evident. But Ohio --  and some states have started incorporating these into the accountability systems -- is saying, “Maybe we need to start including the students’ and faculty’s voice in the process, which is something I am really excited about.

Ohio did not formally include that in their system, but they said they will look at in the future. And so, the federal law mandates at least one of these non-academic indicators, but states can put more in if they would like. I think that is something to think about.

However, one of the reasons why attendance was chosen was because educational leaders and teachers as well pushed back against this notion of, like, asking them to do more in the accountability system. And so, because they already collect attendance, it was an easy box to check. Whereas, I think when the law was passed, it was  . . . a lot of the rhetoric around it was that this will improve our accountability system and improve schools.

And so it’s fascinating like how that’s the policy rhetoric, but then the practitioners were like well, we are already overwhelmed with everything we are asked to do. Can’t I just focus on teaching and learning and, like, check this box. So I get it. But it is kind of this classic example of the disconnect between policy and practice.

James Loy:

Great. Dr. Saultz, thanks for talking with us. Next time, we’ll talk with a local Ohio superintendent who is also an EHS educational leadership doctoral candidate to hear his perspective on how the tension and disconnect between educational policy and practice is actually unfolding in some local schools today.