Reauthorization of ESEA, Our Perspective

by Forum Conveners George Wood and Pedro Noguera

After the President’s State of the Union speech, speculation has begun about what will happen with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), most recently renamed No Child Left Behind.  Reports in the national press cite sources that the Obama administration is ready to address some of the most grievous problems in the current law.  That will be a good start, but we want to encourage the Administration and Congress to do more than fix a bad law – we want them to invest in public schools in ways that prepare every young person to use his or her mind well.

In a few weeks, we will be releasing a detailed set of recommendations for ESEA.  For now, however, we wanted to share our key principles, in the hopes that we might generate a dialogue amongst the public of what they hope for their schools and communities.  Since there is no one-size-fits-all plan for improving and supporting public schools, it is the conversations in our neighborhoods and communities that are most important.  You, your neighbors, the teachers in your town or city – you are the people who can best design school reform strategies that work for your children, and create, nurture, and support high quality schools across the country.

The Conveners of The Forum believe that every community is entitled to receive from our federal government the supports that make an equitable, high quality education possible for all children.  While it is fundamentally the role of states and locales to support schools, the role the federal government can play is crucial.  It should not, however, be the role that has been played over the past decade—that of dictating classroom practices, micromanaging curricular and teaching decisions, and dictating assessment practices. 

The legitimate federal role in public education is to insure that all of our children have equal access to public schooling.   As with voting rights and rights to non-discrimination in employment and housing, the federal government protects all citizens by ensuring equal access to those things that enable us to enjoy the fruits of our Constitutional form of government.  A high-quality education is one of those rights.  Thus, while the federal government provides less than 10% of the national education budget, it can leverage that funding to ensure equitable access to a quality education for all children.

To that end, we recommend that any reconsideration of ESEA include the following:

A National Commitment to High Quality and Well Supported Teachers in Every Classroom:

Over 25 years ago the words of Ted Sizer are still the truest every spoken about public education:  “Without good teachers, strategically deployed, schooling is hardly worth the effort.”  The provision of good teachers, and the supports they need to do their job, is one of the major civil rights agendas of the decade.  Providing every child with talented teachers, providing for those teachers the leadership and conditions that allow them to practice their craft, and allowing those teachers to exercise their professional judgment is the base upon which a just and equitable system of education is based.  Convener Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleague from the Center for Teacher Quality, Barnett Berry, long ago outlined a Marshall Plan for Teaching that would take America down the road to this type of commitment to teaching.  Not only doable, it is affordable, costing less than one month’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other nations long ago learned that if they invest in teaching, they do not have to try and micro-manage schools through curriculum and testing mandates.  It is time that this nation invested in the human capital that would make our schools again the envy of the world.

Invest in the Research and Development of Assessments of Student Achievement that Focus on Higher Order Thinking Skills rather than Rote Memory:

Major research and development work has always been something for which we turn to our national government.  To date we have relied on the lowest common denominator when it comes to looking at school effectiveness, that being standardized, machine scored tests.  Even members of the current Department of Education as well as the President and First Lady have pointed out that these scores tell us little about our children.  Further, they seem to have limited predictive validity when it comes to assessing students’ potential success in college or work.

Many nations have gone to more performance based assessments, which include teacher assessments, course embedded work, and nation-wide reviews.  Such could be the case in our nation, but it will take the commitment of the federal government to push this agenda forward.

An approach to accountability that holds states responsible for the conditions to learn while holding communities responsible for equity and achievement:

The current federal policy framework holds schools to unreasonable targets, using narrow assessment tools, with punishments that do little to improve school performance.  Ignoring decades of research on engaging, challenging learning environments, the strategies for school improvement mandated under current federal law show little promise of helping children learn.  Instead, the new vision for ESEA should hold everyone accountable to just one thing:  Providing the most engaging, challenging, and equitable learning environment for each child.

The federal government can do this by supporting states in building capacity to help schools with targeted, proven tools to help schools learn.  And states should be held accountable for providing every child with the equitable opportunity to learn; perhaps through requiring they meet federal opportunity to learn indexes or through tying federal funding to equitable funding in the states.  With such support, it would then make sense to hold districts and communities responsible for the wise use of resources to insure every child has the education our democracy requires.

None of this will be easy; but all of it is necessary.  We applaud the efforts by the Department to bring together leaders from both parties to find ways to correct the problems with the current federal approach to education.  We also applaud the Secretary of Education’s intent to pull back from the unrealistic timelines and the punishments invoked on schools in current federal policy.  We encourage our friends in Washington to rethink their current approach to educational policy—with the federal government attempting to do what it is uniquely unsuited to do as in mandating teaching practices and curricular approaches, while leaving the heavy lifting of teacher supply, research, and equity to the states.  Reversing this equation is not only proper, given the responsibility of states and communities for schools, it will also be more effective.

The Forum’s Conveners stand ready and willing to assist both the Department and Congress in rethinking NCLB, as are many educators across the nation.  It is time for a change we can believe in.