Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


White House: ESEA Rewrite Needs to Focus on Struggling Schools and Students

By Alyson Klein — July 06, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Both houses of Congress are about to consider bills to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But the Obama administration is worried that neither version of the legislation does enough to ensure states stay focused on struggling schools and on closing the achievement gap. And it can’t support either bill at this point, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday.

The White House has already threatened to veto the House legislation. But it’s stopping short of issuing a similar threat against the Senate bill.

Low-performing schools and students remain persistent problems at the state level, the administration argues. For instance, in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in each state—as identified by the Obama administration—only 36 percent of students hit grade-level proficiency in reading on state tests, compared to 67 percent in all other schools, according to a report released Monday by the White House.

And in some states, the gaps were even more serious. For instance, in Ohio, 26 percent of students in low-performing schools hit state proficiency targets on state math tests, compared to 78 percent for all other schools. And in Michigan 38 percent of students in low-performing schools graduated high school, compared to 89 percent elsewhere in the state, a 54 percent gap.

Here’s the big tension point: A very careful, delicately balanced bipartisan bill from Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., that’s about to hit the Senate floor would keep in place the testing regime at the heart of the current version of the law—the No Child Left Behind Act.

But it would turn over major decisions on accountability to states, including which schools to intervene in, how to fix them, and how to flag schools with big achievement gaps between traditionally overlooked students (like English-language learners) and their peers.

If the bill were to tighten up the federal role in accountability—which it would, under a still-in-the-works amendment by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.—it could lose support among Republicans. Meanwhile, the civil rights community is threatening to oppose the bill if there aren’t more accountability protections included, which could hurt its support with some Democrats.

What’s more, the Republican-written House version of the measure, which has struggled to gain support from conservatives, would go even further in rolling back federal accountability protections.

“Currently neither bill considered in the House or Senate has sufficient accountability systems, and that’s unacceptable,” said Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic policy advisor.

The Obama administration is looking for new language that would require states to identify their lowest-performing schools, schools with big achievement gaps, and schools with high dropout rates and intervene to make them better.

The White House report makes the case for why there needs to be more attention to low-performing schools and students.

But while the information about gaps between the lowest-performing schools and other schools is telling, it’s unclear from the report whether a strong federal role—similar to what the Obama administration is seeking—would do anything to fix them.

For instance, the report attempts to illustrate the progress the nation has already made under the NCLB law, which sought to put a laser-like focus on traditionally overlooked groups of students. It notes that the nation’s graduation rate hit 81 percent in the 2012-13 school year, an all-time high after years of a federal focus on graduation rates. But experts are divided on whether NCLB is to thank for that.

And the report singles out progress in Tennessee and the District of Columbia to show how a focus on teacher quality and the lowest-performing schools can pay off. Both have seen gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (aka the Nation’s Report Card) and both were participants in the administration’s Race to the Top program.

But other Race to the Top states haven’t had nearly as much success—in fact only half of the dozen participants produced statistically significant gains on the National Assesment of Educational Progress or NAEP. Delaware, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.

And there are also plenty of other examples of how the administration’s policies—particularly under its NCLB waivers—haven’t worked as well as intended. For instance, the Obama administration’s prescription for the lowest-performing schools, a revamped version of the School Improvement Grant program, has cost more than $5 billion since 2010, with decidedly mixed results. Two-thirds of the schools in the program improved during their first two years of the program, but another third slid backward.

And the administration hasn’t released the data from the third year of the program yet, even though that group of schools finished up in the 2012-13 school year. (To be fair, the department has had some technical problems in tracking the progress of SIG schools, thanks to issues with a contractor.)

What’s more, under waivers, which are in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia, states must identify their absolute worst schools and schools with big achievement gaps and try to fix them. But that has been one of the hardest pieces of waiver implementation to get right. States were more often cited for failing to meet expectations in this area than any other.

And states seeking to renew their waivers have had a tough time tweaking their “exit criteria,” meaning figuring out when a school should be considered “turned around” and should stop receiving support—and scrutiny.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal Feds Add Florida to List of States Under Investigation Over Restrictions on Mask Mandates
The Education Department told the state Sept. 10 it will probe whether its mask rule is violating the rights of students with disabilities.
3 min read
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal How Biden Will Mandate Teacher Vaccines, Testing in Some States That Don't Require Them
President Joe Biden's COVID-19 plan will create new teacher vaccination and testing requirements in some states through worker safety rules.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela administers a COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site for at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa.
Matt Rourke/AP
Federal Biden Pushes Schools to Expand COVID-19 Testing, Get More Teachers Vaccinated
President Joe Biden set teacher vaccine requirements for federally operated schools as part of a new effort to drive down COVID's spread.
7 min read
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Washington. Biden is announcing sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.
President Joe Biden in a speech from the White House announces sweeping new federal vaccine requirements and other efforts in an renewed effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Harnik/AP