THE BLOG
02/24/2016 05:39 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

The Times They are a-Changin'

June 2008 isn't really all that long ago. But in the education policy world, it feels almost like a different era altogether.

That month saw the launch of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a national campaign with the mission of calling attention to the many impediments posed by poverty to student's achievement and school success. It also marked the emphatic establishment of an opposing camp, which rejected the proposition that poverty-related impediments drove achievement gaps, and that saw bad teaching and weak accountability as the root problem. Indeed, "no excuses" was the banner under which they began to fly.

In the years that followed, the no excuses camp notched notable victories, and its policy priorities were widely adopted at the federal and state levels. While US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was the only notable signatory to both the BBA and opposing education reform platforms, it quickly became clear that he leaned toward the latter. His signature federal policy initiative, Race to the Top, required states to tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores on standardized tests and to categorize and issue consequences for schools based on those scores. And when he could not persuade Congress to reauthorize the long-overdue Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he offered states waivers to the then-requirements under No Child Left Behind on the condition that they enact similar policies. At the state level, affiliates of national groups like Students First, led by no-excuses champion Michelle Rhee, pushed similar policies.

At the same time, opposition to these policies began to grow. Proponents of BBA, who understood that these policies did not, in fact, address the root causes of problems in schools serving disadvantaged students, were joined by others who saw the damage the policies were doing in their schools and communities. Teachers were confused and fed up by new requirements that made no sense, parents were distraught at their children being pushed out of "no excuses" schools and having class time eaten up by preparing for and taking tests, and students themselves, especially those whose schools were being shuttered in large numbers, were staging increasingly vocal protests.

And that opposition was backed by a growing pile of evidence -- both theoretical and data-driven -- that the policies were not working and that poverty was a major culprit. In 2011, leading poverty experts Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane jointly edited Whither Opportunity?, a compendium of scholarly work documenting how the US public education system compounds, rather than compensates for, large and growing societal inequities. In February 2013, the Equity and Excellence Commission, a bipartisan group appointed by Secretary Duncan to assess the state of US Education (a much-needed an update to the 1983 A Nation at Risk) pointed to substantial disparities in opportunity, starting at birth, that drive achievement gaps. That same year, for the first time since school meals have been subsidized, over half of all public students were eligible. And 2015 scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which were flat in both reading and math for the first time, shined a spotlight on the reality that gains in the post-NCLB era were much smaller than those in the decade preceding it.

In other words, policies that excuse everyone but teachers for the poor conditions in which an increasing share of US children grow up have not improved achievement, and they appear to be helping gaps grow, if anything.

It's hard to say exactly when the tipping point happened, but the winds of change are blowin'. In New York, where vocal opposition to the number of assessments students had to take, and their misuse, had been stubbornly ignored, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an in-depth exploration of what had gone so wrong with Common Core implementation. When Congress finally reauthorized ESEA, eight years after it was due for an overhaul, some of the most problematic measures attaching high stakes to assessments were pulled back. Finally, John King, who had led the Race to the Top and Common Core work in New York, publicly apologized to teachers for the Department's role in making them out as the villains, rather than front-line soldiers in the fight against child poverty.

Meanwhile, California is reversing decades of disinvestment in schools and making equity a top priority so that new standards can work. The state's CORE districts are providing guides to smarter accountability systems that take both inputs and outcomes into account. Boston, New York City and San Antonio are working to make quality pre-k available to all students. And Kentucky and New Hampshire are among the states working to develop new types of assessments that better measure what students know and can do.

Today's relaunch of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education reflects these changing times. With the question of whether student achievement is limited by poverty largely settled, we must now turn our attention to identifying effective, evidence-based strategies to mitigate poverty's impacts. Those strategies must help all students viably strive for college, career and civic readiness -- so they can grow into engaged and productive members of society. And those strategies must be informed by input from those closest to communities and classrooms, who have the greatest stake in how well policies are implemented and how well they work. We begin by providing six examples -- from California to the New York Island -- of diverse communities that have tackled this hard work and are seeing its benefits. The big job ahead is to turn these examples from exceptions into the norm, so that, rather than helping a few children beat the odds, we improve the odds for all of them, and our country's future.