Opinion: On pushing the ESEA boulder up the hill

This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the value of detailed student-achievement data?by district, school, state, and subgroup. To really have traction, however, those data must be linked to rigorous standards, decent tests (and other measures), and interstate comparability. On those points, NCLB?faltered?it mandated that states aim for universal ?proficiency? by 2014 but allowed them to define proficiency however they liked. Thankfully the Common Core State Standards Initiative is potentially coming to the rescue with its rigorous standards, real-world relevance, upcoming assessments, and coast-to-coast adoption.

Second, NCLB has also?shown the federal?government to be utterly incapable of enforcing a nationwide ?accountability and intervention? strategy, of assuring teacher quality, and of doing myriad other things that comprise the actual operation?and reform?of the education system. We see little reason for optimism about more successfully driving reform tomorrow via another layer of top-down federal mandates attached to formula-based funding programs.

[quote]

Meanwhile, Race to the Top, while imperfect, has shown that competitive grant programs can stimulate some worthwhile education changes at the state and district levels.

Finally, there are the new political realities, especially the GOP (and the Tea Party to its right) wanting Washington to get out of the way of states and districts, and Democrats?some of them, anyway?wanting reforms for poor kids even if that means getting in the face of the teacher unions.

Put it together and you have the makings of a grand bargain, in line with what we've termed ?Reform Realism??a pro-school-reform orientation that is also realistic about what the federal government can (and cannot) do well in K-12 education. This philosophy entails three main principles:

?Tight-loose? ? Greater national clarity about our goals and expectations for students (i.e., standards linked to real-world demands of college and career), but much greater flexibility around how states, communities, and schools actually get their students there.

Transparency instead of Accountability ? Results-based accountability in education is vital, but it can't successfully be imposed from Washington. Instead, Uncle Sam should ensure that our education system's results?and its finances?are transparent to the public, to parents, to local and state officials (and voters), and, of course, to educators.

Incentives over Mandates ?When Uncle Sam seeks to promote specific reforms in education, he should do so through carrots rather than sticks?and through competitive grant programs rather than formulas.

Reform Realism entails a radical rethinking of the federal role in education, one that would be much more focused, and, we think, tailored to Washington's capacity and expertise. These are our ten specific recommendations. (You can find the details here.)

  1. Expect states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt rigorous (i.e., ?college- and career-ready?) academic standards in reading and math (either the Common Core standards or equally rigorous ones).
  2. Likewise, expect states to adopt rigorous ?cut scores? on tests aligned with those standards?making sure these cut scores signify true readiness for college and career.
  3. Require states to develop the capacity to measure student growth over time.
  4. Demand regular testing in science and history, not just reading and math, in order to reverse curricular narrowing and foster a more complete education in key subjects.
  5. Eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and instead require states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt school-rating systems that provide transparent information to educators, parents, taxpayers, and voters. Such state reporting systems would have to be pegged to college and career readiness and, for high schools, to graduation rates. They would have to rate all schools annually on their effectiveness and include disaggregated data about subgroup performance.
  6. Eliminate all federally mandated interventions in low-performing schools. Allow states to decide when and how to address failing schools?and other schools.
  7. Eliminate the Highly Qualified Teachers mandate.
  8. Rather than demand ?comparability? of services across Title I and non-Title I schools, require districts to report detailed school-level spending information (so as to make spending inequities across and within districts more transparent).
  9. Offer states the opportunity to sign flexibility agreements that would give them greater leeway over the use of their federal funds and would enable them to target resources more tightly on the neediest schools.
  10. Turn reform-oriented formula grant programs into competitive ones. Specifically, transform Title II into a series of competitive grant programs, including Race to the Top, i3, charter-school expansion and improvement, a competitive version of School Improvement Grants, and an expanded Teacher Incentive Fund.

In essence, we propose greater federal prescriptiveness (?tight?) around standards, tests, cut scores, and data systems, and much less federal regulation (?loose?) of sanctions, interventions, teacher quality, and almost everything else.

No one will be thrilled with this plan. The education establishment will complain that our proposal maintains No Child Left Behind's focus on ?teaching to the test.? Some reformers will worry that, by backing away from federally mandated ?accountability,? we will turn the clock back on improvements for poor and minority students. And some conservatives will argue that we don't go far enough to minimize the federal role.

The other way to look at this plan, however, is as a clear path to reauthorization?a path that, after suitable compromises on all sides, will take us to a much better place, federal policy-wise, then where we are now. Who is ready to lead us there?

More By Author

Related Articles