Guiding Principles and Legislative Recommendations to the 110th Congress on the Reauthorization of ESEA (NCLB)

About The Forum for Education and Democracy

The Forum for Education and Democracy is a non-partisan, reality-based think tank devoted to the central purpose of America’s public schools – preparing every young person for a future of life-long learning and engaged citizenship.  Our work in developing policy, providing research, and speaking on behalf of public education is guided by three principles:

  • Pay off America’s Educational Debt
    As a nation we must rectify decades of neglecting the needs of our most school-dependent children through ensuring equal access to high quality teachers, well provisioned schools, and multiple educational resources for every child.
  • Close the Participation Gap
    America’s public schools are our best resource for engaging more citizens in exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
  • Reconnect Schools and Their Communities
    Our schools function best when they are tightly linked to the communities they serve.

About This Report

As passed in 2001, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind), was filled with good intentions.  Specifically, it was claimed the law and its provisions would draw attention to our most underserved school populations.  Five years later we see that the implementation of the law has failed by any objective measure to live up to its promise.  Further, the unintended negative consequences of the law have been felt most acutely in communities where our most school-dependent children live.

The Forum for Education and Democracy believes that the future of our democracy rests upon a strong system of public education.  Legislative remedies to improve our schools must focus on issues of equity and support communities in creating challenging and engaging educational experiences for their children.  We believe the current ESEA legislation falls short of these goals.  Our recommendations are designed to reclaim the historic mission of ESEA: An equitable educational opportunity for every child today in order to insure a future of life long learning and engaged citizenship.


Americans want and deserve a strong system of public schools.  As a democracy we have chosen to provide an education, at public expense, to all children in order that they may fulfill their rights and responsibilities as citizens.  Our goal has been, and continues to be, equitable educational opportunity for all so that they may enjoy a future of lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.

Federal involvement in public education has historically been in the name of equalizing opportunities to learn – providing funds to schools that serve disadvantaged children and access to schools for those who have been kept from the schoolhouse door.  We are troubled that current federal policy has drifted from this mission.

We seek to remind our representatives of this historic commitment--that federal involvement in public education is in the service of equalizing educational opportunities.  Our democratic way of life depends upon our ability to provide for every child, regardless of race, class, or geography, with access to public schools that are equitable, challenging, and an integral part of their community.  We also believe that if our children are to benefit from such schools we must insure childhoods that are free from want, fear, and insecurity.

With this in mind, The Forum for Education and Democracy calls for the following principles to guide any and all legislative action as the 110th Congress considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind).

Guiding Principles for ESEA Reauthorization

The Forum for Education and Democracy calls upon our elected representatives to adopt the following principles in considering federal support for public schooling:

  • Principle 1: Pay off the Educational Debt
    The primary purpose of ESEA when first enacted was to reduce inequities in school resources.  Today, America operates one of the most inequitable educational systems among industrialized nations.  Current legislation does nothing to alter this while insisting children and their teachers close achievement gaps.  What we have is an educational debt that has accrued over years of neglect.  Any federal legislation must address this debt and insure that every child has access to equitable school resources, facilities, and quality teachers.
  • Principle Two: Assessment in the Name of Learning
    We need to know how our schools are serving our children, but our current reliance upon high-stakes standardized testing is designed not to educate, but to punish.  We claim to be helping children learn and teachers teach through an overabundance of testing – but testing is not investing.  Rather than a punitive and narrow view of schools, legislation should provide for a richer, more sophisticated, and more honest view of what and how our children are learning.
  • Principle Three: Reconnect Communities and their Schools
    Genuine accountability for public schooling rests with local communities.  Current legislation gives too much authority over the lives of our children to testing firms, textbook companies, and government bureaucrats.  The appropriate federal role is to insure equity, not to run local schools.  Reauthorization should insure that those closest to children, their parents and teachers, have the most to say about life in the classroom.

The Forum for Education and Democracy Specific Congressional Action: Reauthorization of ESEA

Based on these general principles we therefore recommend the following specific actions by Congress:

  1. Federal education funding to states must be both tied to each state’s movement toward equitable access to education resources and support specific actions for educational equity.  This includes equalizing school funding based on student needs, access to well-prepared and expert teachers, adequate facilities and supplies, and after-school programs.
  2. Schools alone are not responsible for student achievement.  Any federal program which is focused on school success must also be accompanied by programs that provide adequate health care and nutrition, safe and secure housing, and healthy communities for all children.
  3. A major investment must be made in a teacher quality system that provides well-prepared expert teachers for our most school-dependent children and supports these teachers in their work.  This involves developing an adequate supply of teachers and changing working conditions to keep good teachers in the classroom.
  4. Funding should be provided to assist states and districts in developing more appropriate measures of student learning.  These assessments should include multiple measures of student development over time, be performance based, and rely upon local involvement in development, administration, and scoring.
  5. The current punitive, confusing, and limiting system of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) should be replaced with assessments of continuous improvement using multiple measures of student welfare and learning.  Accountability for schools should be about providing good educational experiences for children which are reflected in multiple measures of student learning.
  6. Local schools and districts must be allowed to make judgments on how best to improve their schools.  Rather than authorize particular teaching strategies or curricula, legislation should set broad goals for improvement and allow local communities to implement their own designs to meet these goals.

There is sufficient evidence that current federal legislation is failing to meet Americans’ desire for a strong system of public schools.  It is time to change course and use federal resources not to micromanage our schools but to provide them with the resources that would make educational equity a reality.  The changes we propose have a track record for exactly that – providing for every young person a high quality education for lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.  America’s children and America’s future deserve nothing less.

For More Information

For more information or research on these topics, you may contact The Forum for Education and Democracy.  Additional print resources include the following and are available through the Forum:

Deborah Meier and George Wood (eds.), Many Children Left Behind (Boston Beacon Press, 2004).  A collection of essays that address the limitations of NCLB including pieces by Linda Darling-Hammond, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier.

The Forum for Education and Democracy, Policy Analysis Report: Guiding Principles and Legislative Recommendations for ESEA Reauthorization in the 110th Congress.  A review of the research data and analysis of the recommendations set forth in The Forum’s “Guiding Principles” document.