Is There a Third Way for ESEA?

04/07/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015
Jonathan Kirn via Getty Images

Last month, a highly polarized debate waylaid a House vote on the federal government's most important education legislation: the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Known since 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it provides more than $13 billion annually to support education for disadvantaged children.

The law authorizing NCLB was set to expire in 2007, but Congress, unable to agree on amendments, has extended it year after year. Public schools in big cities and other beleaguered localities depend on the money from NCLB, so it can't be repealed. Nobody likes the way it works now, but agreement on something else is elusive. Senate Committee Chair and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander announced an early deadline for a bill this year, but an effort at bipartisan discussions has slowed the process down. The Senate HELP committee is expected to see a draft for mark-up this coming week.

As members of very different "camps" on school reform, we think there is more common ground than has yet been evident in the political process. Last summer, we were part of two distinct groups of scholars and policy experts that met separately to rethink educational accountability -- both motivated by concerns that NCLB's approach has increasingly undermined school improvement and equity.

These groups came from what most would consider different ends of the political spectrum, and there was no reason to expect them to draw similar conclusions. So, when we read each other's reports (see here and here), we were surprised by the extent of agreement.

We agreed, for example, that, while tests are important as a way of keeping track of student learning, and identifying problems in a timely way, they are taking up too much time in many schools and when used alone can give a distorted picture of what children are learning and where improvement is needed.

We agreed that measures should focus on the skills needed for college and careers, including students' abilities to learn and solve problems independently, not just what is easiest to test. We also agreed that these measures need to be considered in the light of other information -- like completing high-quality courses of study and progressing toward graduation -- when schools and students are evaluated.

We agreed that, because a student's learning in any one year depends on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

We agreed that public officials have a responsibility to intervene when a group of students are not learning what they need to successfully finish high school and connect to a productive future, but we also agreed that actions should be based on a thoughtful diagnosis of the school's resources, staffing, and practices, and of the alternatives available to children, rather than mechanically chosen from a pre-determined list of consequences.

Finally, we agreed that if schools are to be held accountable for results, their leaders must have sufficient authority, flexibility, and resources to make decisions on spending, staffing, and instructional methods. Meanwhile state and district officials have a responsibility to support the necessary capacity and resources to allow schools and students to succeed.

These agreements differ from current practice under NCLB, which doesn't consider how schools function or how students are progressing beyond test scores, ignores capacity-building, and often constrains improvement.

Starting from these points of agreement, members of the two groups have produced a new report (available here and here) that addresses the design of accountability for the pending reauthorization of ESEA. Key factors include:

Support for innovation and improvement: An accountability system must include ways to measure results, make judgments about performance, and effect meaningful changes. At a time when many children are not learning all that they need, when knowledge is expanding and changing, and when none of the many ideas about how to improve schools is proven best under all circumstances, an accountability system must leave room for innovation and experimentation.

These goals cannot be achieved simply by labeling schools or insisting on higher performance. Public officials also need to do their part, eliminating regulations that hamstring problem solving, and encouraging improvement in teaching methods and supports for students. Though accountability can't wait until every school is ideally staffed and equally funded, officials need to fix policies that cause gross inequalities in school spending and educator capacity.

Appropriate Assessment: Regular assessment provides useful information about what individual students are learning, and how well different groups are doing. Parents and officials need this information to know what's working and what must be fixed. But as we have seen in the NCLB era, when bubble tests are overused or misused, schools can weaken instruction (via a focus on test preparation) and student learning can suffer. Longer-term measures (e.g., progress toward graduation, successful completion of college and career ready courses of study) and performance on extended tasks that require deeper learning, can counter the harms of standardized testing.

Informed judgment: In order to know what do for a group of students, officials must weigh and balance test scores, other measures of student progress, and evidence about their school: Is it likely to improve quickly with help, or is there a better alternative for the students? Use of multiple measures in this way minimizes risks to students, either of keeping them in a school that is not likely to improve without major changes, or of depriving them of a school that is improving significantly.

Proper Roles for Governments: Schools are where key decisions must be made about how to educate students. Districts can make sure schools have access to quality teachers, and offer training, but they also need to take responsibility for fixing or replacing schools that consistently fail students. State and federal governments can provide data and research, as well as systems of support, and can incentivize improvement. But they should not make decisions about how to evaluate individual educators or manage individual schools.

This allocation of responsibility implies that higher-level governments should not "jump over" lower ones. Accountability relationships (between the federal government and the states, and also between educators and school leaders, and districts and schools), should be redesigned around annual plans. These plans should provide evidence of performance, acknowledge problems, pledge lines of corrective action to be taken promptly by both parties, and specify actions that will be taken within a reasonable time period if corrective actions are not taken or fail to work.

Implications for ESEA

To create a more successful approach to improving schools, ESEA should:

  1. Expect states to ensure that districts annually assess student learning and growth, while allowing states to develop better systems of assessment that measure deeper understanding and provide more detailed diagnostic information about individual children. Congress should support experimentation with new approaches to measuring student learning and progress, evaluating schools, and remedying low performance and should allow the Secretary of Education to approve trials of statewide accountability models based on new assessment systems. The results of these agreements should be rigorously studied and the Secretary should have the authority to revoke agreements that do not lead to effective action on behalf of children at risk.
  2. Encourage use of multiple measures dashboards that look at a number of indicators of student and school progress but still require, as a condition for receiving federal funds, that states and localities take effective action on behalf of children not learning.
  3. Require states to establish systems for reviewing district and school progress and providing effective interventions where needed, but not prescribe local practices with respect to educator evaluation or school improvement, nor require mechanical use of test scores to drive consequences for schools.
  4. Transform the role of the federal government in accountability so that it focuses on approving and managing performance agreements with states. These agreements should create strong incentives for states to improve district and school performance on raising graduation rates and assuring career- and college-readiness for disadvantaged children, with consequences for failing to do so.
  5. Create incentives for states to recognize and remedy systematic differences in the financial and human resources available for the education of similar students, and for districts to remove internal barriers to funding equity and transparency.

From our very different vantage points, we believe an ESEA developed on these principles would better accomplish the noble goals that NCLB set out to achieve. It would ultimately, we are convinced, produce greater equity and excellence in our education system with less federal overreach and more of the American problem-solving our successes are built on.