ESEA Goes Further, but Not Necessarily Forward

04/21/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015


By Patrick Byrnett

With the unanimous committee approval of the Senate’s latest attempt to update and replace No Child Left Behind, there has been no shortage of coverage, analysis, and reactions—especially to the bill’s Title I, which handles testing, accountability, funding for low-income students and school turnarounds.

Less attention, though, has been paid to the provisions that will govern how the federal government supports teacher quality. The federal role is far from trivial; under the current law, states and districts received over $2.2 billion in 2014 to support teacher quality efforts—and we have vanishingly little evidence that spending meaningfully helps student learning. So what would the new bill (known as the Every Child Achieves Act, or ECAA) change?

The end of federal requirements on teacher qualifications. ECAA gets it right by removing the federal requirement for teachers to be “highly qualified.” That term—which focused on degree attainment and licensure rather than demonstrated effectiveness with students—hasn’t met its intended purpose of ensuring all students have access to great teachers. This is an overdue and broadly supported improvement.

High-poverty districts win more teacher effectiveness funding. The committee approved a significant change to how teacher quality dollars are allocated, placing a greater emphasis on the number of students in poverty in each state. Given all the evidence we have that low-income students are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers, this funding shift makes sense. Formula changes are always controversial—they inevitably involve some states getting more money and some states getting less than before, and no one likes funding cuts. But we think this move is right on the whole.

Class size reductions get a research-driven cap. There is evidence linking some class size reductions—particularly in early grades if classes become very small—to improved student outcomes. But states and districts routinely ignore the limits of that research base and use the vast majority of their teacher quality money on class size reductions. These moves are politically popular, but almost always translate to hiring more teachers with no emphasis on quality while failing to reduce class sizes enough to actually affect student outcomes. We think this focus on quantity over quality is a mistake. ECAA would impose a much-needed boundary on this spending, saying the funds can only be used for class size reduction “to an evidence-based level.” The devil is in the details as to who gets to decide what that means, of course. But any limit that encourages districts to make bolder and more creative use of these funds is a win.

Federal role on teacher effectiveness effectively ends. The bill as a whole reduces the federal role in school-based accountability to little more than a rubber stamp of state plans, but perhaps the biggest barrier to federal oversight is on teacher effectiveness. The bill allows states to spend federal money on development and monitoring of teacher evaluation systems and plans to ensure that high-need students have equitable access to great teachers. Unfortunately, it requires neither; even worse, it sets no expectations about how (or whether) those efforts are working. This risks spending untold millions of dollars on evaluation systems without any evidence that they lead to improved instruction for students or access to great teachers. This lack of accountability (or even transparency) is a big loss for students and parents.

So there are three potentially important improvements and one significant backslide, but any shortcomings in this draft are fixable as this bill moves to the Senate floor. Sounds like a win for students, right?

We’re not so sure.

Without stronger accountability measures—both on teacher effectiveness and the Title I issues raised by others—the small wins may be pocket change compared with billions of dollars spent without verification that students actually benefit. Even if Congress doesn’t want state effectiveness plans subject to federal approval, transparency is a reasonable demand. States and districts should need to publish evaluation ratings at the district (and, preferably, school) level, as well as overall distributions of ratings and trends over time.

This is only the first step of the process, of course. It’s an important step, though—Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) deserve all the praise they’ve received for demonstrating that it is still possible to work in a bipartisan fashion on Capitol Hill. But there remains work to be done for this bill to reflect the long-standing common ground between the two parties: broader support for public education as a vehicle for social mobility, backed up by providing taxpayers with assurances that their money is well spent. The work to replace No Child Left Behind may be one step further, but we can’t yet say that it is a step forward.

Patrick Byrnett is Partner, New Teacher Effectiveness at TNTP.