The last update to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was in 2002 when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Since that time, NCLB has received credit for shining a spotlight on educational disparities between white students and low-income students of color, and other traditionally disadvantaged student subgroups. However, NCLB is also believed to be flawed and in desperate need of a rewrite—a view held by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In a January 12 speech that coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the initial ESEA, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan marked the progress the nation has seen over the last fifteen years, including the highest-ever high school graduation rate, millions more in college, and the closing of achievement gaps.
“Opportunity gaps and brutal truths are swept under the rug less often, meaningful action is more frequent, and over the past fifteen years, the difference for our nation’s children has been profound,” Duncan said. “Today, a young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be enrolled in college. The number of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams has increased nearly five-fold. Does that mean that black and Hispanic students today are five times smarter than they were before? Of course not—they simply have five times the opportunity to demonstrate their intelligence, their desire for rigorous course work, their work ethic, and their commitment to building positive futures for themselves.”
At the same time, Duncan admitted that much more work needs to be done. “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that we are yet doing justice by all of our young people,” he said. “And frankly, everyone in this room here knows we are not even close, and the desire to right that wrong is what fuels the passion in so many of us.”
Duncan drew a stark contrast between what he saw as the two options for a new ESEA—one that “continues to move us toward that life-transforming promise of equity” or one that “walks away from it.” He outlined several “core beliefs” that he said should form the foundation of a new ESEA, including more resources for schools; high-quality preschool for all children; and better preparation, better support, and more resources for teachers.
Regarding standards, Duncan did not mention the Common Core State Standards, but he said that states should “always choose [their] standards, as they always have, and that those standards should align clearly and honestly with what young people will need to know for success in school, in college, and in life.”
Duncan stressed the importance of disaggregated data, saying that “every family … deserves to know that schools are making a priority of the progress of all children, including those from low-income areas, racial and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, those learning English, and others who all too often, historically, have been marginalized, and underserved, and undereducated.” He added that schools should take action to improve if students in any of those groups fall behind.
Duncan spent a significant amount of time on assessments and offered support for NCLB’s current testing mandate of annual tests in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. He also said more must be done to ensure that testing and test preparation do not take too much time away from instruction.
“In many places, there are simply too many tests that take up too much time, and I know many educators and families and students are frustrated about that,” Duncan said. “We need to take action to support a better balance. And that’s why we will work with Congress to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests they are giving and eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests, and provide support for them to do exactly that.”
Duncan believes that Republicans and Democrats can work together to write a new education law to replace NCLB but said he was “deeply concerned” about where some Republicans may be headed.
In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate the day after Duncan’s speech, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) outlined his priorities for fixing NCLB, which he said would be his “first priority as chairman.” He indicated that he would send a “lean bill” to fix the law to the Senate floor on February 23 and intends to finish work on it in the “first few months of this year.” He said the U.S. House of Representatives has a similar schedule.
Alexander called NCLB “unworkable” and said his plan is to set “realistic goals, keep the best portions of the original law, and restore to states and local communities the responsibility to decide whether local schools and teachers are succeeding or failing.” He said the bill would “build on thirty years of work by governors and chief state school officers to develop higher standards, better tests, stronger accountability systems, and fair and effective teacher and principal evaluation programs that will allow parents and communities to know how children in our country’s public schools are performing.”
Prior to his speech, Alexander circulated a staff discussion draft of his bill that outlines nine problems within NCLB. He said quick agreement was possible on four or five, but that “real differences of opinion” exist on the others. Two key differences are likely to be on assessments and accountability. On assessments, Alexander’s draft includes two options—one that keeps NCLB’s testing requirements and another option that allows states to decide what to do on testing. On accountability, Alexander called for an end to the federally defined adequate yearly progress mandate, instead requiring states to establish their own accountability systems to measure school performance.
Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, told Politico that Alexander’s draft offers “too much flexibility for states.” She noted that states didn’t have very strong accountability systems prior to NCLB and warned that they “could head down that path again.”
In a statement, Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise applauded Alexander for moving the process forward, but he urged policymakers to consider major improvements. “Education is a civil right and ESEA is fundamentally a civil rights law,” Wise said. “I am concerned that Chairman Alexander’s discussion draft erodes the limited but important role played by the federal government in supporting the education of traditionally underserved students.”
Wise noted that Alexander’s plan reduces federal support for low-performing schools, eliminates accountability requirements for traditionally underserved students, and unfunds or eliminates several important federal programs, including School Improvement Grants, the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, and the High School Graduation Initiative.
“Traditionally, education has been a bipartisan issue,” Wise said. “Efforts to renew ESEA have failed over the past several years largely because of the Congress’s inability to reach bipartisan agreement on key areas of education policy. Over the weeks and months ahead, the Alliance for Excellent Education looks forward to working with members of Congress within both parties to achieve a bipartisan ESEA reauthorization that maintains the federal commitment to education and upholds the principles of accuracy, equity, and excellence.”