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ESEA ON THE WAY?: Harkin Eyes Next Month for Possible Committee Action on ESEA Reauthorization

“Even after six years of missing Annual Yearly Progress—years during which students’ lives and futures are on the line—NCLB is vague about what types of turnaround strategies are necessary to achieve fundamental change.”

Last week, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that he intends to mark up legislation next month that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Harkin has set a goal of having the legislation reach the Senate floor in late June or July, but acknowledged that finding a replacement for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevenswho announced that he will retire this summer, could cause the timeline to slip.

In the weeks since the Obama administration released its blueprint for revising ESEA on March 13, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee have held multiple hearings on ESEA reauthorization.

ESEA on the way

Last week alone, the Senate HELP Committee held two hearings on ESEA reauthorization. On April 13, the committee heard testimony from experts on turning around chronically underperforming schools—a topic that Harkin referred to in his opening statement as “one of the great moral, economic, and civil rights imperatives of our day.”

The hearing on school turnaround featured testimony from Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, who explained New York City’s approach to school turn around and shared what he saw as shortcomings in NCLB, including its “focus on absolute achievement instead of growth,” which he said places many schools in the category of “failing” even if students made significant gains. “Even after six years of missing Annual Yearly Progress—years during which students’ lives and futures are on the line—NCLB is vague about what types of turnaround strategies are necessary to achieve fundamental change,” Klein said.

Also testifying at the hearing was Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, who discussed the approximately two thousand high schools in the nation in which graduation is not the norm and the middle schools linked to these high schools. (For additional information on these high schools, see the article on the new Alliance for Excellent Education brief, “Prioritizing the Nation’s Lowest-Performing High Schools,” listed below.)

“[In these middle schools], at least half of eventual dropouts begin the process of disengaging from school, and achievement gaps become achievement chasms,” Balfanz said. “Thus, by the time they get to high school, many students already have one foot out the door, as witnessed by their declining attendance, poor behavior, and course failure during the middle grades. As a result, high schools face an intense educational challenge they were not designed to meet.”

Balfanz added that if each of the five thousand high schools with graduation rates below the current national average of about 75 percent were to increase their rates by, on average, two percentage points per year for ten years, the national graduation rate would hit 90 percent. “This is an attainable goal and should become the minimum progress viewed as acceptable,” he said.

The hearing also featured testimony from Beverly Donohue, vice president of policy and research at New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, Timothy Mitchell, superintendent of Chamberlain School District 7-1 in Chamberlain, South Dakota, and Marco Petruzzi, chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, California. (Access video and witness testimony from the April 13 hearing.)

The second Senate HELP Committee hearing, held on April 15, focused on the role that teachers and principals play in the nation’s public schools. Specifically, the committee focused on how ESEA reauthorization could help schools better attract and retain highly qualified teachers and leaders, increase their effectiveness as practitioners, and evaluate the skills and strategies that lead to student achievement. (Access video and witness testimony from the April 15 hearing.)

The Senate HELP Committee will hold additional hearings on meeting the needs of the whole student (April 22), standards and assessments (April 28), meeting the needs of special populations (April 29), and high schools (May 4).

For its part, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on April 14 to examine how the use of data systems in schools across the country can help improve education outcomes. In his opening statement, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) said it is “unacceptable that education is the only major enterprise in this country that, on the whole, doesn’t use data as to make decisions.” He added that teachers, parents, school administrators and states “need access to real-time data to know exactly how students are faring in school.”

The hearing featured testimony from several data experts including Richard J. Wenning, associate commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education, who explained how Colorado uses student performance data to improve accountability for student growth, better inform school improvement efforts, and more clearly communicate with the public, and Katie Hartley, a teacher and value-added data specialist for Miami East Local Schools in Miami County, Ohio, who discussed how she uses value-added and achievement data in her classroom and with other groups of teachers to make decisions about curriculum and instruction. (Access video and witness testimony from the April 14 hearing.)

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