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UPSIDE DOWN: New Alliance Brief Says Federal Education Policy Needs to be Flipped

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“Given the impending release of additional stimulus dollars intended to drive reform and the fast-moving common state standard development effort, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is needed sooner rather than later to ensure that reforms sought through stimulus dollars can be achieved and to ensure that federal law doesn’t undercut the standards effort.”

A new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education argues that federal education policy needs to be flipped on its head if the nation is to graduate all students from high school, prepared for college and careers. According to the brief, Reinventing the Federal Role in Education: Supporting the Goal of College and Career Readiness for All Students, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is too lax where it should be firm and too rigid where it needs to be more flexible.

“Given the impending release of additional stimulus dollars intended to drive reform and the fast-moving common state standard development effort, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is needed sooner rather than later to ensure that reforms sought through stimulus dollars can be achieved and to ensure that federal law doesn’t undercut the standards effort,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Specifically, federal education policy should be firmer and tighter in establishing overall goals and ensuring that they are met while being more flexible and less prescriptive in determining how educators meet those goals.”

As the brief points out, having fifty different sets of standards and assessments leads to fifty different expectations about what students should know. Consequently, what students learn too often depends on where they live rather than on a common understanding of what they need to know to succeed in college, careers, and life. Instead, the brief argues that federal policy should establish college and career readiness as the goal for all students and support collaborative state-led efforts to define those expectations through common standards and assessments.

But that is not the only problem with NCLB, as identified by the brief. It notes that current law mandates how educators should address low-performing schools by requiring a specific sequence of one-size-fits-all interventions that are not informed by the problems unique to the individual schools. In the alternative envisioned by the Alliance, federal policy would permit state and local policymakers, administrators, and educators to make data-driven decisions about how to improve student achievement—provided that federal policy leaves the “what,” “when,” and “how” decisions to the educators who are closest to the students and schools, and then holds them accountable for the results.

As presented in the brief, NCLB’s approach to high school reform is backwards. Where the nation needs commonality—expectations for students and the system, measures of college and career readiness, and definitions of vital indicators like graduation rates—there are fifty different standards. Similarly, where sharp instruments are needed to guide instructional and school improvement actions, there is a reliance on crude tools, like Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). And where individualization based on local circumstances is needed, such as interventions for low-performing schools, there is only uniformity mandated by federal policies.

Reinventing the Federal Role in Education makes several recommendations for how policymakers can improve upon NCLB as they begin the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Specifically, ESEA reauthorization should:

  • Establish college and career readiness as the common goal for all students.
  • Ensure meaningful accountability for high school outcomes designed around common indicators of college and career readiness and high school graduation.
  • Replace the current, flawed, one-size-fits-all school improvement process with requirements for state- and district-led systems that are differentiated, data-driven, and prioritize addressing the lowest-performing high schools.
  • Support strategies that are necessary to implement high school improvement at a much larger scale, including districtwide efforts, maximizing the role of external partners, and building the capacity of the system to implement innovative solutions that truly result in improved student outcomes.
  • Provide new funding for the implementation of innovative solutions to address low-performing high schools.

Reinventing the Federal Role in Education is part of a series of briefs meant to inform policymakers about the shortcomings in NCLB as it relates to high school accountability and improvement, and encourage them to act quickly to fix the law.

Other briefs in the series are Moving Beyond AYP: High School Performance IndicatorsWhole-School Reform: Transforming the Nation’s Low-Performing High Schools, and Action Required: Addressing the Nation’s Lowest-Performing High Schools.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.