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Accountability

Administration Unveils ESEA Reauthorization Blueprint

Aims to Address Concerns About NCLB Inflexibility, Look Beyond Test Scores
By Alyson Klein & Michele McNeil — March 16, 2010 5 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has released broad principles for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that seek to address perennial complaints that the law’s current version—the No Child Left Behind Act—is inflexible and focuses too narrowly on student test scores to get a picture of a school’s achievement.

The Obama administration’s long-anticipated blueprint for overhauling the Bush-era NCLB law seeks to maintain the current statute’s focus on disaggregating data and improving the performance of particular student groups, such as students in special education.

The administration is planning to look beyond the current law’s focus on test scores in assessing schools’ performance and also report on factors such as attendance, course completion, and school climate. It would also permit states to expand the subjects tested beyond reading and mathematics.

“We’ve got to get accountability right this time so it actually drives improvement in student achievement,” Mr. Duncan said in a March 12 conference call with reporters. He added there were three overarching goals with the newly released blueprint: setting a high bar for students and schools, rewarding excellence and success, and maintaining local control and flexibility.

The looming 2014 deadline under NCLB—the date by which all students are supposed to be proficient in reading and math—would essentially go away under the department’s blueprint. States instead would be given time to adopt new college- and career-ready standards, and they would set performance targets against those new standards, said Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. But no new absolute deadline would be established, she said.

The department said it will work with Congress during the transition period, as the original 2014 deadline approaches and before states are able to adopt college- and career-ready standards. It will also work with Congress to come up with a new name for this next edition of the ESEA, to replace the No Child Left Behind label.

Annual Assessments

One thing that would carry over from the NCLB era, however, is the yearly schedule for assessing students, Ms. Martin said in the conference call.

The Department of Education released the outline of the ESEA plan to news organizations on March 12 and provided additional details in the telephone briefing with reporters.

To address complaints that the NCLB law doesn’t make a clear distinction between schools that are consistently struggling to raise the achievement of all their students and schools that are having trouble only with particular student populations, the Obama administration is seeking to differentiate interventions for schools that have varying difficulty in meeting the law’s goals.

The new vision for ESEA would provide local and state flexibility in determining what interventions were necessary in most schools. And broadly, the department says there would be consequences and rewards for districts and states as well as schools.

But the bottom 5 percent of schools would be forced to use the department’s four turnaround models that now govern the Title I School Improvement Grant program. The next-lowest 5 percent would be on a “warning” list and be required to take action using research-based interventions, although the department would not mandate one of the four turnaround models.

In addition, states would be required to identify schools with the greatest achievement gaps and take aggressive action to fix the problem. If, within three years, those students failed to improve, the department would require the state to take over the school’s Title I spending.

The proposal to set up different tiers of sanctions was widely anticipated by most observers. The Education Department already allows some states to use such a system through a “differentiated consequences” pilot project, created in 2008 under Secretary Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings.

No Mandatory SES

But, in an important policy shift, schools that failed to meet achievement targets would not be mandated to provide school choice or supplemental educational services, or SES.

Mr. Duncan had already signaled that the SES and public-school-choice provisions under NCLB were not acceptable to him. Last April, in light of the $10 billion in additional Title I money flowing to states and school districts from the federal economic-stimulus package, he invited states to apply for waivers to make those provisions more flexible. So far, the department has granted 43 waivers.

The renewal plan seeks to give teachers a voice in school improvement efforts by using still-to-be-specified surveys about working conditions and school climate.

And it would seek to strengthen provisions in current law that require states to make sure their most effective teachers are distributed equitably among high- and low-poverty schools, such as by providing more reporting and transparency.

The blueprint also calls for the federal government to “encourage funding equity,” such as by requiring schools and districts to more clearly show how resources are being distributed among high- and low-poverty schools.

Under the blueprint, states would be able to measure individual students’ academic growth, rather than comparing different cohorts of students with each other, as under current law.

The Education Department already has a pilot program authorizing the use of such “growth models” that was put in place in 2005 and opened up to all 50 states in 2007.

The ESEA was first enacted in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of a package of programs aimed at combating poverty, known as the “Great Society.” The NCLB law was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, after winning overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress.

Reauthorization has been pending since 2007. That year, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced a discussion draft that failed to garner sufficient support in Congress.

The Obama administration had made some of its reauthorization priorities clear in advance of the blueprint’s release.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Administration Unveils ESEA Reauthorization Blueprint

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