Nebraska Must Do Better for Kids

Recently, the Nebraska Department of Education submitted a last-minute application for a waiver from the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Unfortunately, the application lacks meaningful and needed commitments towards positive change that would improve the quality of education for the children of Nebraska. The application should embrace, rather than elude, teacher evaluations that measure and weigh student progress, as well as the adoption of rigorous college-and career-ready standards. This would improve Nebraska’s chance of receiving a waiver and, more important, benefit the state’s students. Ensuring poor and minority children receive a high-quality education is the main aim of both NCLB and the waiver requirements issued by the Obama administration. For too long, Nebraska has operated under the assumption that the accountability provisions provided under NCLB would never come to fruition, while simultaneously rejecting policies that have proven to benefit poor and minority students, such as opening the door to high-performing charter schools and ensuring that poor and minority children have equitable access to highly effective teachers. The consequences are dire. Based on the 2013 NAEP assessments in math, Nebraska has one of the biggest achievement gaps between black and white students in the nation, third behind the District of Columbia and Wisconsin. Local opponents of these policies wield almost absolute power over education policy in Nebraska and stifle significant reform. One result of that influence: a growing and often offensive belief that nothing can be done to improve the outcomes of children in failing schools, short of eradicating poverty or imposing major social-familial interventions. Indeed, the state’s former speaker of the legislature and one time chairman of the Education Committee prioritized a bill in 2014 to intervene in failing schools by focusing on community ills rather than what is—or is not—happening inside the school building because, as Nebraska Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Brian Halstead said, the state “ does not want to presume it’s a problem with the school.” According to Nebraska’s current Commissioner of Education, teacher evaluations that consider student performance are a major point of contention within the waiver requisite and the submitted application. Only a handful of states still lack the requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance as measured by student growth. It appears Nebraska’s current commissioner and the influential state/local teachers union would like to keep Nebraska in that minority. Reasonable people may disagree on issues of teacher accountability, or at least the level of accountability for raw student performance data, but can one honestly claim no correlation between student learning and teacher effectiveness? A Nebraska teachers union lobbyist did just that. Regarding Nebraska’s waiver application status, he stated:
State assessments…aren’t designed to measure teacher effectiveness, so [the U.S. Department of Education] has got a legal problem in holding people accountable based upon a test that measures student learning, not effectiveness of the teacher.
I would suggest that the legal problem more aptly lies with the current policies that contribute to the failure to provide all Nebraskan children with a decent education, not with holding adults accountable for the quality of that education. Those of us working in education reform, including teachers working in schools that serve poor and minority children extraordinarily well, understand the power of a high performing school, the need for highly-effective teachers, and the importance of rigorous standards. We know great schools can and do change lives and we know these schools can be scaled. Good schools are possible for all children, including all Nebraskan children. Nebraskans, from parents, to teachers, to policymakers, must reject the current status quo that is dictating state education policy, resulting in poor student outcomes. We must demand that all children in Nebraska receive the promise of a high-quality education. Until we do so in meaningful numbers, and until policies start working in favor of the thousands of children stuck in schools that are failing them, the U.S. Department of Education ought to tighten, not loosen, the requirements meant to protect students.
Katie Linehan is a teaching fellow at Success Academy Harlem West Middle School, one of 32 schools in the Success Academy Charter School Network in New York City. She has long ties to education in Nebraska. After earning her law degree from the Nebraska College of Law, Katie worked with underserved youths at non-profit organizations in Omaha before becoming a legislative aide in the Nebraska Unicameral, where she worked for the vice-chairman of the Education Committee. Katie remains active with the movement to bring meaningful education reform to her home state, co-founding multiple initiatives with that aim.
Katie Linehan in the Deputy Communications Director for the American Federation for Children, an educational choice advocacy organization, and has been involved in multiple initiatives to expand school choice to her home state of Nebraska. She spent more than a decade working with underserved youth, primarily in North and South Omaha, and as a middle school teacher at Success Academy Charter ...

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