When something goes well in Washington these days, it's worth noting. Republicans and Democrats now agree that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - the current name of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) - has failed to achieve its goals and needs to be fixed. Especially since reauthorization of ESEA is already eight years overdue, it's good news that new Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander has decided to make reauthorizing ESEA a top priority. Further, it's promising that Chairman Alexander has decided to work with Ranking Member Patty Murray to try to develop a bi-partisan bill.
But, to reach bi-partisan agreement, among other issues the committee will need to answer two vital questions that Chairman Alexander asked at its February 3rd roundtable hearing:
#1 - How can Congress encourage States and localities to innovate to achieve better outcomes for students?
#2: If we keep tests and disaggregate, who decides what to do about tests, determines school success and failure and decides what to do about failure?
In effect, the Chairman is asking: what can Congress do to help States and localities improve public schools serving disadvantaged students and what should be the respective federal, State and local roles in testing, accountability and school improvement?
The first question goes to the heart of how to achieve ESEA's central purpose: dramatically improving academic learning for disadvantaged public school children, especially poor and minority students. The second goes to the heart of how to resolve Congress's central political challenge: finding a satisfactory compromise between Republicans and Democrats on the nature and extent of the federal role in helping to accomplish ESEA's critical national purpose.
Both questions are fundamental. The issue is: how to answer them?
The Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), is an alliance of national education, civil rights, disability, and civic organizations emphasizing the need to shift ESEA from test and punish to supporting localities and States in making the systemic changes that improve student learning and holding them accountable for doing so. When FEA prepared its proposed legislative language on assessments, accountability and school improvement for the ESEA reauthorization, it provided educationally sound, principled and concrete answers to both questions. (I participated in writing the proposals.)
As to #1, consistent with what Johns Hopkins University Professor Robert Balfanz said at the roundtable, America should stop "reinventing the wheel" on how to improve low-achieving schools and apply what we've learned over the last fourteen years about what works. Specifically, Congress should briefly describe the key common elements identified by research and experience that low-achieving schools implement to turn themselves around. These elements involve "leadership," "instructional improvement," "curriculum," "school climate" and "parent and community involvement and support" and include specific practices successful turnarounds use to implement each element. Congress should then require the lowest-achieving Title I-funded public schools to analyze their needs and develop collaborative plans to implement the elements, with support and assistance from the local educational agencies, States and the federal government.
Concurrently, Congress should encourage all Title I-funded schools to focus on implementing these practices by requiring them to report, to their States and the public, indicators of what steps they're taking to implement the elements, resources available to the schools, and student outcomes. Outcomes should include not just disaggregated test scores, but student attendance, suspension and expulsion rates, high school graduation rates and rates of college enrollment and post-graduation employment.
As to #2, schools and local school districts would decide how to implement the common elements. The States would decide which specific indicators their districts had to report. Districts and States would provide technical assistance and support to schools, with the U.S. Department of Education offering technical assistance to States and districts at their request. States ultimately would be responsible for intervening, as they determine appropriate, when the lowest-achieving schools are failing to implement the elements. In addition to providing funding, the federal government would monitor to ensure States comply with their responsibilities as Congress would more narrowly define them in the reauthorization.
In the Chairman's formulation, Congress would be encouraging the States and localities to innovate by guiding and assisting them to have Title I-funded public schools do what works to improve schools and, thereby, enhance student learning. All the school improvement and intervention decisions, including how to respond to low test scores and other indicators of inadequate progress, would be made at the local and State levels. As to school improvement and accountability, the federal role would be focused on: identifying what research and experience shows works; funding; technical assistance; and monitoring reporting of resources, common elements implementation and student outcomes and other statutory requirements to ensure compliance with the reauthorized ESEA.
As to assessments, assuming, as the Chairman does, that ESEA continues to require some testing and disaggregation of data, it will make a significant difference how much testing Congress imposes. FEA's proposal - to reduce federally mandated testing from all grades to grade span - is not only consistent with the Chairman's recognition that Congress should now focus on how to encourage States and localities to improve students' learning, but would significantly facilitate achieving that objective.
There would continue to be a statistically valid, disaggregated picture of how each public school's students were doing based on a sample of one entire grade's students every year in grades 3 -5, 6 -9 and 10-12. But, since only one grade in each grade span would have to be tested each year, many millions of students in the remaining grades, their teachers, principals and parents, would be freed from the time and burdens of preparing for and taking those tests.
By simultaneously shifting from test and punish to evaluate, support and improve, the tested grades would not be a locus of intense pressure to teach to the test. Instead, all grades would be able to use this valuable time and funds and shift in accountability to concentrate on implementing the common elements and any other steps needed to help turn their schools into good schools.
In short, Chairman Alexander has raised fundamental questions about how to improve schools and divide responsibility between federal, State and local governments. FEA's legislative proposals for the ESEA reauthorization provide educationally sound, principled and concrete answers to those questions.
These proposals would put Congress in the role it should be in - helping the States and localities to improve low-achieving schools, not over-testing the students and punishing teachers and principals for the difficulties they face and the lack of support they receive. Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray and the Senate education committee members should adopt FEA's proposals and report out an ESEA reauthorization bill that finally provides hope for America's millions of disadvantaged students.