Barone vs. Barone on goals: I am confused (with update)

For several years, DFER1 staff member Charlie Barone has been pointing out that the nominal 100%-proficient AYP requirement for 2014 is not, in fact, 100%: NCLB’s “safe harbor” provision allows schools to meet AYP if all subgroups improve in the proportion labeled “proficient” by a certain amount (or, rather, the formula targets the proportion not meeting proficiency is reduced). For a variety of reasons I think the nominal 100%-proficiency goal was wrong.2 But Barone has been correct in his reading of the law: there is a safe-harbor provision, and it does provide a safety-valve from the 100% proficient requirement in 2014.3 In essence, the safe-harbor provision is a requirement for continuous improvement: a clunky formula-driven version of continuous improvement, but a version of continuous improvement nonetheless.

This consistent position thus makes me even more confused with Alyson Klein’s reporting yesterday that Barone now dislikes continuous improvement in the context of Iowa Senator Harkin’s draft ESEA reauthorization bill:

“‘Continuous improvement’ is the education equivalent of embarking on a weight-loss program, putting your scale in storage, and walking around in sweatpants for three months.”

In particular, Barone is concerned that, without clear achievement targets in place, poor and minority children will be swept under the rug.

From his other writing I have inferred Barone was in favor of the 2004 reauthorization of the nation’s special-education law that created a Response to Intervention framework for assessment… which is essentially a continuous-improvement test for intervention (in terms of providing intensive services to individual students). But I could be wrong about that, or maybe Klein misquoted him, or maybe something about the context of the interview is missing, maybe something about the definition of “continuous improvement” in the expected bill to be marked up in committee. Barring that, this turnabout is puzzling.

If the quotation and context is correct, I think I understand where he may be coming from: it looks much like a 21st-century version of 1970s hard-numbers perspectives on desegregation. “Unless we set hard targets, school districts will wiggle out of desegregation.” That sounds like Gary Orfield, no?  Now replace “desegregation” with “accountability” and you have something very close to Klein’s quoting of Barone above. The fundamental dilemma with such hard targets is that while they may be necessary in the short term, they are very difficult to sustain politically in the long term. Scold fatigue sets in after a few years of suburban schools’ being told most of them suck. The reality is that while this year’s high school sophomores might not be learning everything you or I might like, many suburban parents are happy with the schools their children are attending.4

That fact does not mean suburban schools are doing well by all their students, but rather that we’re in a particularly bad policy place if a “you mostly suck” strategy is the best we can do. It also happens to be a particularly bad political place (see Carter, James).

One last wonkish point: the focus on “clear achievement targets” is a policy fetish. Any assessment measure is mediated by the techniques of assessment and professional or political judgment. The best statement one can make about any achievement target is that it is useful, and there is an argument that useful targets outweigh the problems with state testing systems. There is also an argument to be made that growth models have additional measurement error, specification error, and complexity that make them weaker policy tools than status measures. But status measures are not “clear” in the way that Barone is using the word.

Update (10/12/11): In email correspondence, Barone clarified that his concern was with the lack of annual measurable goals in the draft bill that Harkin’s committee staff has now released (PDF). That release has been accompanied by a storm of immediate-reaction commentary. Because “continuous improvement” appears to be a lightning-rod not only for Barone, Ed Trust, and others but also by those upset with it from other perspectives, including Richard Rothstein, I’ll try to carve out some time to write an entry on it later this week.


  1. Democrats for Education Reform []
  2. Briefly, the whole “world-class 100% proficiency readiness perfection” game is flawed. []
  3. Maybe this has something to do with Barone’s former job as George Miller’s aide during the writing of NCLB. Do not ignore the importance of legislative staff. []
  4. This is not a new or deep insight: you can see this phenomenon every year in the Kappan/Gallup poll results. []