Administration Unveils ESEA Renewal Blueprint

By Alyson Klein — March 13, 2010 9 min read
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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 doesn’t set a high enough bar for academic 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.

But the administration would allow states and districts considerably more leeway to determine how to intervene in schools that are struggling to meet the law’s achievement targets, but aren’t among the lowest-performing schools. It would also permit states to expand the subjects tested beyond reading and mathematics. And it would ask schools to report on a broader range of factors, such as school climate.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act during a meeting at the Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on March 14.

“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.

President Barack Obama added in his weekly Saturday radio address, “Through this plan, we are setting an ambitious goal: all students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career—no matter who you are or where you come from.”

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 of Education’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. But no new absolute deadline would be established, she said.

Under the current law, states must test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools must report on outcomes for students in particular subgroups, such as English-language learners, and for the student population as a whole. Schools that do not meet achievement targets—known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP—are subject to increasingly serious sanctions.

The department said it will work with Congress during a 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 Education Department released a broad 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, a school’s students failed to improve, the department would require the state to take over the school’s Title I spending.

States would also be directed to point to high-poverty schools that were making significant progress in closing achievement gaps and reward them with recognition and additional funding.

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.

Still, the idea earned high marks from advocates for state and district officials.

“We’re excited about this and would like to see it pass,” in part to get relief from the current law, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va.

While he cautioned that the “devil is in the details” and said there were aspects of the proposal he would like to reshape, he gave the department high marks for seeking to replace the current accountability system with what he considers to be the more “meaningful” measure of college and career readiness, and for proposing to include a mechanism to reward high-performing schools.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington, agreed. “It’s kind of nice not to be hassling schools inappropriately,” he said.

Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government relations at the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates for disadvantaged students, likes the department’s focus on the schools that are struggling the most, and the emphasis on getting all students ready for college or a career.

But she cautioned that the goal would require a dramatic shift in school culture and a lot of additional assistance, particularly for students who were the farthest behind.

“We have no doubt most kids can get there,” Ms. Wilkins said. “But it’s going to take a lot of support for teachers, and a lot of support for kids.” She said schools would need to be given clear signals about whether they were on track to meet that benchmark.

No Mandatory SES

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

Mr. Duncan had already signaled that the tutoring 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 proposal could meet with opposition in Congress, particularly among Republicans.

“It’s disappointing to see [tutoring] and school choice removed from the parental toolbox, particularly because it appears the focus is shifting to the needs of schools rather than the needs of students,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Mr. Duncan’s dislike for the supplemental-services provisions in NCLB is well known. While the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system, he fought regularly—and publicly—with the Education Department during the Bush administration in his quest to allow the district to serve as a provider of tutoring services for its students, even though the district had not made adequate yearly progress. The department told Mr. Duncan in 2004 that he must stop providing the services using federal funds, but he refused to do so.

Mr. Duncan and a few other urban school leaders won waivers from then-Education Secretary Spellings in September 2006, allowing their districts to serve as federally financed tutoring providers in exchange for agreeing to certain conditions. (“Ed. Dept. Allows Chicago to Provide NCLB Tutoring,” Sept. 7, 2006.)

On another front, the ESEA 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. Schools would be required to report on factors such as teacher turnover, teacher absenteeism, and the number of novice teachers working in a school.

States would also be directed to develop a definition of “effective teacher” that relies at least partially on student outcomes, and to establish systems for linking students’ academic performance to their teachers and school leaders.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said that judging from her initial discussions with department officials, it appears the blueprint places “100 percent of responsibility on teachers for school success and gives them zero percent authority.”

Still, she said, “we are not going to walk away—we’re going to roll up our sleeves” and work with Congress to improve the blueprint.

The proposal 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 No Child Left Behind edition of the law was signed by President George W. Bush in January 2002.

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

Rep. Miller applauded the general direction of the department’s blueprint, saying in a statement that it “lays the right markers to help us reset the bar for our students and the nation.”

The Obama administration made some of its reauthorization priorities public in advance of the comprehensive draft. For instance, its fiscal 2011 budget proposal revealed that the administration was seeking to replace AYP—the signature accountability yardstick in the NCLB law—with a new measure aimed at making sure students are ready for college or a career.

And earlier this month, the administration released a proposal to tie Title I grants for districts to states’ adoption of college- and career-ready standards. States could either join with a consortium seeking to develop such standards, or work with their institutions of higher education to craft them.

The Title I proposal is expected to bolster the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the highest-profile national effort to develop more uniform, rigorous standards. So far, 48 states have signed on to that initiative, which is being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this story.

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


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