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A New Era for ESEA?

January 13, 2015

It’s been a rough decade for the current incarnation of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). When President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2002, it was a symbol of bipartisanship: Democrats and Republicans forging a compromise designed to help more kids get a great education.

Today, NCLB remains a source of (increasingly rare) bipartisan consensus—except now it’s the law everybody loves to hate. Liberals think it’s too punitive and believe it has created an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing. Conservatives find the law too prescriptive in its policy solutions, limiting options for state policymakers.

If all this were playing out in the world of pop culture, the law would be long overdue for the backlash-against-the-backlash. For all its imperfections, though, NCLB ushered in a fundamental shift in what Americans expect from their public schools—a shift that we would argue is generally for the better. Before NCLB, we mostly thought about a quality education in terms of inputs: give schools enough money and enough staff, and you can call it a day.

Today, even critics of the law agree that a quality education should be defined by what students actually get out of their time in school. By requiring schools to assess and publicly report how much their students were learning every year, NCLB shined a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth: too many schools were failing their students, especially their low-income and minority students. This transparency, combined with a requirement that states intervene in their poor performing schools, has been a catalyst for improvement.

NCLB had flaws to be sure, including a failure to prevent states from “dumbing down” standards and assessments, but its essential legacy about measuring student learning and exposing inequity is not one anybody should want to run away from—a view echoed by both state education leaders and national civil rights organizations in their recent calls to maintain annual assessments as the means to protect that transparency. There were good reasons why the law was strongly endorsed by both President George W. Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy.

Will 2015 be the year we finally see new education legislation? Attempts to pass a new version of ESEA have fallen short for years now, but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairs of the Senate and House committees overseeing education, have made it a top priority for this year. And rightly so: thirteen years of implementation have educators and policymakers alike clamoring for revisions and updates. But as Congressional leaders improve the law, they shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The core principle behind NCLB—that parents and policymakers deserve to know what and whether all kids are learning—must be maintained.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made this point when he laid out the Obama administration’s priorities for the next version of ESEA. Duncan sketched out a sensible vision for how the law can continue to advance educational equity on many different fronts. In this vision, ESEA would encourage states to move forward with higher academic standards, and it would continue to require annual testing that provides a picture of how much students are actually learning every year.

But Duncan believes the law could also do more than ever to help schools get the results we all want for our kids while responding to the concerns from both sides of the aisle. For example, Duncan recommended using the reauthorization to expand access to pre-kindergarten, provide greater funding to schools, and help ensure that teachers get the feedback and support they need to do their best work. He argued for better equity in arts education, noting that subjects like music and art shouldn’t be considered luxuries. His plan would also help curb over-testing by setting limits on the time schools spent on standardized tests.

There’s a lot for Sen. Alexander and Rep. Kline to like in this proposal. It remands the vast majority of decisions to states. It does not impose national standards or a single curriculum. But it does call upon the federal government to fulfill its basic role in education: promoting fair access to opportunity on a national level.

Few people want to return to the days when the federal government took no responsibility for helping kids get the education they deserve, or to the even more recent days when schools could quietly fail to educate huge percentages of their poor and minority students without anybody even bothering to check. We’ll be hoping for—and advocating for—a common-sense law that will keep moving our country closer to educational equity.