Fix or Replace Federal Education Policy?

The Department of Education has an assignment that’s about five years late: reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, called No Child Left Behind by 43).  It’s a difficult assignment that requires collaboration of the contentious—to have good chance of passing Summer 2010, it would require the unions to stand down and a handful of Republicans to step up.
It will also require the reform community—charter school and civil rights advocates, gap closers and teacher effectiveness advocates, and sponsors of high standards and the multiple pathways, national and state advocates—to unite behind a set of principles and push.
It would be impossible to describe in less than an Atlantic-length article how complicated this is.  K-12 education is a bigger part of the American economy than defense and while federal spending is a small proportion, federal legislation increasingly frames how it operates.  ESEA is a monster omnibus with lots problems that should have been fixed five years ago.  The good news is that the unexpected policy success of Race to the Top has reframed the edu-debate in state capitals around Duncan’s four assurances: college ready standards, teacher effectiveness, longitudinal student data, and turning around low performing schools.
In fact, progress has been so dramatic that many reformers think Congress should let the Race play out and wait until 2011 to take up ESEA when the new conventional wisdom is firmly rooted.
There are three possible approaches to reauthorization: a fix, a reframe, and an overhaul.
The fix, a transitional ESEA, would address the problems and add a dose of Race to the Top. But opening ESEA isn’t without risk.  It’s quite easy to imagine the odd bedfellows of tea-baggers, school boards, and unions advocating for a return to local control.  Many state leaders, broke and chaffing under federal influence, will join the critics.  This could go downhill fast.
When reopened, ESEA may as well be reframed—a strategy leaving most programs intact but under a new framework that is more performance oriented and incorporates the competitive spirit that has already made the Race a success.
Six principles that could frame the deal include

  1. College/career ready: all students should graduate with viable life options that include employment and further and higher education.
  2. Good schools: states must uphold a ‘good school promise’ that ensures access to at least one quality public school where students in all subgroups make at least a year of academic progress for each year attended (i.e. a replacement for the tricky AYP—Adequate Yearly Progress).
  3. 3. Good teachers: states and districts must ensure that every student has a teacher proven effective by a comprehensive evaluation system incorporating achievement data.
  4. 4. Good data: states must maintain a longitudinal data system that tracks student progress using multiple forms of assessment.
  5. 5. Flexibility: states are free to organize and manage their education system as they see fit if they comply with these four principles.
  6. 6. Incentives for innovation: the federal government can play an important role in advancing competitiveness and civic capacity by investing in a focused research and development agenda and rewarding innovate states, districts, and companies. 

An overhaul would reimagine federal involvement in education (and would drive a Tenther crazy). It’s hard to imagine a battered congress with any imagination, but an overhaul could include some stretch ideas like:

  • a portable national teaching certificate and pension plan
  • national charter (including virtual) school networks
  • stronger efforts to address funding equity within and between states
  • incentives for adoption of student progress models based on multiple assessment (ie, progress based on learning not age and credits)
  • a new student support compact that extended the day/year and provided targeted tutoring to students that need extra help
  • incentives for models that blend preschool and elementary and high school and college
  • give IES a broader mandate to pilot, fund, and evaluate solutions and spark innovation
  • college savings account for every student
  • requirement that states fund higher education based on completion for receipt of federal scholarship funding

George Miller is the only one of the Gang of 4 that championed NCLB left in a leadership role, so he’ll have a lot to do with the strategy and the timing.
Here’s a little secret that would support a delay: states could DIY reauthorization by applying for a waiver for stuff they don’t like in their Race to the Top application.  The Department could approve requests that are generally heading in the right direction.  Stick with what’s working; provide a pressure relief valve where you need to.
Elementary and secondary education in America is bigger than the military and, in the long run, will play a more important role in determining national security.   Like NCLB, the new ESEA is likely to frame debate, energy, and investment for most of a decade.  Unlike the health care reform bill, education deserves, in fact requires, bipartisan support.  Getting this right is more important than doing it fast.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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