We need an ESEA and a congress that works

I share Tom Friedman’s frustration about the state of American politics.  Today he bemoans the fact that presidents have about 100 days to try to get things done, otherwise it’s partisan politics and campaign mode:

There is no way that America can remain a great country if the opportunities for meaningful reform are reduced to either market- or and climate-induced crises and 100 working days every four years. We need a full-time government, and instead we’ve created a Congress that is a full-time fund-raising enterprise that occasionally legislates and a White House that, save for 100 days, has to be in perpetual campaign mode.

Friedman continues, “We need to do four things at once: spend, cut, tax and invest. And unless we do all four at once we’re not going to break out of our slow decline. But to do all four at once will require a new hybrid politics, which does not conform to the political agenda of either major party.”
Congress can’t even take on one tough problem at a time.  Take reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as an example.  In a burst of bipartisanship in 2oo1, a bill was passed signaling a significant increase in the federal role in public education–No Child Left Behind.  Because few states were adequately addressing the challenge of under performing students and schools, the feds engineered a system of testing and accountability based on what were deemed to be best practices of the late 90s.
Shortly after passing the bill some problems became obvious.  The focus on age cohorts meeting grade level standards ignored academic growth contributed by some schools.  The focus on teaching credentials reinforces inputs rather than instructional effectiveness. The order and nature of school interventions were quickly called into question.  If the bill had been adjusted and recalibrated a few times in the last decade, the country may actually have a working base line school accountability system.
But it’s 2012 and ESEA is broken and discredited.  Given two more years of congressional inaction, the secretary is left with the need to grant waivers to a law that will soon leave 80% of American schools ‘in need of improvement.’
Worse than a package of waivers would be a piecemeal and odd-bedfellows approach in support of local control–a full abandonment of the NCLB ideals that the feds had some responsibility to promote equity.
Obama had a remarkable first 100 days.  Race to the Top was an ingenious addition to the stimulus plan.  But, as Friedman argues, we need more than a 100 day burst.   We need a congress that works, that can take on tough issues like the economy, entitlements, global warming, and education.
For more:

  • Denny Way commentary on how NCLB testing requirements need to be updated for personal digital learning
  • NYTimes reports that Kline has a reauthorization plan and will attempt to prevent a wave of waivers

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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