Admiring the Problem, or Solving It

In fall 2016, Jamillah will leave her Head Start classroom to begin kindergarten in a suburb of Washington, DC. Like many of her Head Start classmates, she is a tiny bundle of joy and curiosity; she loves colored pencils and books of all sorts, and adores singing the alphabet song. But though she will be better prepared for school than many other low-income children -- after all, she got one of those coveted Head Start seats -- Jamillah won't arrive in kindergarten with anywhere near the vocabulary, early literacy, and math skills of her more advantaged counterparts.

The question for us as Americans, not to mention for Congress and the White House as they try to complete work on the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is what should we expect of Jamillah and the thousands more like her who will enter school at the same time?

Even more to the point, what should we expect of the school systems charged with educating such students?

Beginning in 2002, our answers to both questions have been clear and unequivocal.

Jamillah should be educated to the same standards as other young Americans because she will take her place in the same economy as other young Americans.

And school systems should be evaluated not just by their success in getting more advantaged students to state standards for college and career readiness, but also by their progress in getting their Jamillahs ready for success after high school.

Indeed, wherever any group of children -- low-income children, racial and ethnic minorities, English learners, or students with disabilities -- is struggling to master core reading or mathematics skills, schools have been required to act.

All of that is now at stake. Not the high standards. But the question of whether we really expect all children to meet them.

Because while the "Every Child Achieves Act" that is wending its way through the U.S. Senate right now does a good job of ensuring the achievement of all groups of children is clear and transparent for all to see, it does not require action when there is no progress.

Senate leaders must correct this problem before they complete their work.

And let's be clear: This can't just be about solving problems in the lowest-performing schools. During the past few years, the Obama administration has mobilized significant resources to help turn around the country's lowest-performing schools. That's important work, and long overdue. For too long, many children -- disproportionate numbers of low-income, black, and Latino children among them -- have been essentially warehoused in dysfunctional schools that expect literally nothing from them.

Yet most children like Jamillah are educated not in the so-called "bottom 5 percent" of schools, but in the other 95 percent. When these children are falling overboard into rough academic waters, we can't just pass by in our lifeboats and say, "Sorry, these life jackets are not for you."

The message from the 114th Congress -- like the message from the 107th Congress that approved the last Elementary and Secondary Act -- must be that these children matter no matter where they go to school. This time, we're not going to tell you how to act, but you must act.