ESEA Action High Priority, Duncan Says

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled last week that the Department of Education is poised to launch reauthorization efforts for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He used a packed meeting of key stakeholders here to underline his likely priorities and stress his sense of urgency.

The new version of the law, he said, will need to ensure effective teachers and principals for underperforming schools, expand learning time, and devise an accountability system that measures individual student progress and uses data to inform instruction and teacher evaluation.

Mr. Duncan repeated his assertion, made in a number of speeches since he took office this year, that the fed

eral government “should be tight on the goals—with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers—but ... loose on the means for meeting those goals.”

And the secretary assured more than 200 representatives from education associations, think tanks, and community groups at the Sept. 24 meeting that his administration would be attentive to their concerns during the reauthorization process.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

To that end, he said two of his top deputies—Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, and Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education—will convene a series of meetings on reauthorization of the 44-year-old ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress nearly eight years ago.

The forum and the meetings to take place this fall are shaping up to be the policy community’s version of the Education Department’s recent “Listening and Learning Tour” on ESEA renewal, which already has taken the secretary to 30 states.

In his remarks, Mr. Duncan gave the bipartisan NCLB law enacted under President George W. Bush credit for “exposing achievement gaps and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.” Among its other provisions, the law holds schools accountable for showing annual student progress toward proficiency in reading and mathematics. Schools must show gains for racial, ethnic, and other subgroups.

But the secretary said some of the law’s critics are correct in their assertion that the NCLB law “unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they are making progress—it places too much emphasis on raw test scores rather than student growth.”

Urgency Emphasized

To underline his sense of urgency about reworking the ESEA to assure overdue educational improvement, Secretary Duncan invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which urged dramatic action to achieve racial equality even as others counseled patience.

Mr. Duncan said that even after “nearly half a century of education reform and direct federal involvement ... we are still waiting for the day when every child in American has a high-quality education that prepares him or her for the future.”

Such rhetoric underscores the need for bold and swift action on school improvement through reauthorization of the ESEA, said Charles Barone, who served as a top aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., currently the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, during the 2001 passage of the NCLB law. Although Mr. Duncan reiterated a number of sentiments he’s expressed before, “the urgency is new,” said Mr. Barone, who is now the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee based in New York City.

“I think he’s trying to say that it’s going to get a little uncomfortable,” Mr. Barone said. “He’s not afraid to make people feel a little stressed out” to make sure the legislation includes the right outcomes to advance student progress.

The secretary’s outreach efforts so far—meetings nationwide with teachers, parents, and others—already represent “a lot broader input than went into the development of NCLB in 2001,” said Joel Packer, a principal for the Raben Group, who spent decades as a lobbyist on education issues, most recently for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

But such back-and-forth, while admirable, may slow things, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Given the process outlined by the Education Department, it’s unlikely that there will be a blueprint for ESEA renewal until after the start of the new year, he said.

By that point, members of Congress may be wrapped up in climate-change legislation and other priorities, as well as running for re-election, said Mr. Jennings, who was a longtime House aide to Democrats.

“They’re doing a good thing,” he said of department officials, “but it may have the effect of delaying any changes in the law until 2011.”

The law had been due for reauthorization in 2007.

Pushback Expected

The comments from about two dozen attendees at last week’s meeting illustrated the range of opinions the department is likely to hear as it gets going on what is almost certain to be a tricky reauthorization.

Charles Weis, the superintendentof schools in Santa Clara County, Calif., which oversees a number of districts, brought up a criticism of the NCLB law: the assessments it relies on to gauge student progress don’t give an accurate measure of critical-thinking skills or knowledge of subjects such as social studies and the arts. He urged the department to consider that as it pushes states to revamp their tests.

“What gets assessed gets taught,” he said.

Darrien Johnson, a principal in the 4,000-student Rescue Union school district in California, brought up concerns about new regulations the department has proposed that call for struggling schools to remove their principals in order to qualify for federal school improvement funding. She said she worried that such language could become part of the ESEA reauthorization, and cautioned that it can take a good principal more than three years to turn around a low-performing school.

Reginald Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., asked when the Education Department expects to release its ESEA blueprint. He said a new law is urgently needed because school districts are now subject to the penalties in the current law that Mr. Felton described as “costly and severe.”

Ms. Martin, who worked on the passage of the NCLB law as an aide to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and now is an assistant secretary of education, said that the department doesn’t have a specific timeline yet for releasing a draft, but is hoping to move quickly.

Sneak Preview

The department has already made some of its priorities for reauthorization clear through the development and implementation of its portion of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the stimulus law—which includes significant new education programs.

The most prominent example is the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund, which will give grants to states for making progress on equitable distribution of teachers, standards and assessments, state data systems, and turnarounds of low-performing schools.

Secretary Duncan is designating $350 million of that fund to help states develop richer, more uniform assessments, a program he touted during his speech.

But he also has drawn fire from states, school districts, and teachers’ unions for proposing a highly prescriptive approach to how the Race to the Top grants will be awarded. For example, he would like to give priority to states that adopt performance pay for educators and use their data systems to link student progress to teacher effectiveness.

“In a way, they’re having a dry run [at reauthorization] by putting their ideas in the stimulus,” Mr. Jennings said of department officials.

Vol. 29, Issue 05, Pages 1, 17

Published in Print: September 30, 2009, as ESEA Action High Priority, Duncan Says
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An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Reginald Felton. He is the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

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