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DON’T LEAVE ACCOUNTABILITY BEHIND: Joint Report from Alliance and NCLB Commission Argues for ESEA Reauthorization

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“Sustaining and building on this reform momentum is critical to assuring that all kids—regardless of zip code—receive an excellent education that prepares them for success."

A new report argues the promise of education reform efforts such as Race to the Top and the state-led common standards movement, can only be sustained if Congress and the Obama administration update and improve the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Released by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, the report, Don’t Leave Accountability Behind: A Call for ESEA Reauthorization, credits Congress and the administration for encouraging states to advance important education priorities by linking the stimulus dollars in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to reform initiatives. However, the report argues that ARRA’s one-time funding will run out soon and cannot address long-term needs.

“Sustaining and building on this reform momentum is critical to assuring that all kids—regardless of zip code—receive an excellent education that prepares them for success,” said Gary Huggins, executive director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind. “While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes many critical reform elements that should be part of a reauthorized ESEA, it is not a substitute for the systemic, durable reform that only a reauthorization can provide.”

Since the last reauthorization in 2002, the report notes, the nation has benefited from NCLB’s commitment to hold schools accountable for improving outcomes for all students by highlighting the achievement gaps among groups of students through annual assessments for every student (administered in grades 3–8 and once in high school), report cards for every school, and consequences for schools that do not meet expectations. On NCLB’s watch, significant gains, particularly in elementary grades, were made over the last decade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only uniform test administered in every state. Unfortunately, gains on NAEP start declining in the nation’s middle and high schools where achievement gaps remain large.

“NCLB was groundbreaking when it was signed into law,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Almost ten years later it’s a compact disc in an iPod world—useful, but in desperate need of an upgrade. By reauthorizing ESEA, the Congress can address the aspects of NCLB that time, experience, and research have shown need to be significantly improved and do more to help ensure that every student graduates from high school prepared for college and careers.”

In an effort to provide temporary fixes to NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) created important pilot programs and offered waivers permitting school districts and states to experiment with different approaches to accountability and school improvement, the report notes. ARRA brought about even more rules and additional waivers.

“In the absence of ESEA reauthorization, the myriad guidelines, rules, and waivers that followed NCLB and ARRA have resulted in a patchwork quilt of requirements that send mixed signals to states and school districts,” Huggins said. “There must be a clear and streamlined roadmap on how they all work together and more effectively support state and local reform efforts.”

The report outlines four distinct reasons ESEA reauthorization is necessary to support long-term reform and ensure strong accountability for student outcomes and improvement:

  • NCLB and ARRA have inconsistent accountability goals and measures that send mixed messages to educators and parents, and have the potential to confuse local administrators and increase bureaucracy at the state and federal levels. For example, NCLB set a goal of all students becoming proficient in math and reading by 2014. On the other hand, ARRA requires states to set goals that are “ambitious and achievable,” but imposes no timelines.
  • While ARRA’s programs rightly prioritize the lowest-performing schools, too many other low-performing schools and students do not receive attention and support. Under the competitive framework of ARRA’s Race to the Top Fund, not every state will receive funding and, in states that do, only a subset of eligible schools will benefit.
  • Although there are multiple reporting requirements and administrative burdens, states are not necessarily held accountable for the efficient, effective, and equitable use of federal education dollars under Race to the Top. According to the report, ESEA reauthorization presents an opportunity to rethink and improve monitoring strategies to minimize the burden to states and districts, while maximizing accountability for results.
  • The NCLB accountability framework needs to be updated to recognize the state-led movement toward higher, common standards and improved assessments while maintaining accountability for results. The report argues that an ESEA reauthorization is necessary to realign the accountability system accordingly, while simultaneously ensuring that all schools—including low-performing schools—are accurately identified for improvement and interventions.

In the report, the Commission on No Child Left Behind and the Alliance for Excellent Education call on the administration and Congress to move swiftly to reauthorize ESEA in 2010. Over the coming weeks, the Commission and the Alliance will be reaching out to other national organizations to add to the push for ESEA reauthorization this year.

The complete report is available here.

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