Principled, Sound Middle Way to Education Reauthorization

One way for Congress to break its six year partisan impasse is by overhauling the dysfunctional Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
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Now that the shutdown logjam is resolved, some House Republicans publicly call for negotiating with Democrats, and President Obama urges bipartisan compromise, it's time for the parties to accept an olive branch recently offered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. One way for Congress to break its six year partisan impasse is by overhauling the dysfunctional Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Congress needs to work together for the American people.

In "We're tardy in updating No Child: America's kids need a better education law," Duncan largely avoids arguing the Democratic side of ESEA policy disputes. Instead, he focuses on more basic American political values/principles, e.g., national interest and state responsibility, which both parties should accept. In effect, Duncan invites Republicans and Democrats to use agreement on bedrock values to allow flexibility in finding mutually tolerable compromises on ESEA's policies.

This general approach holds promise. Using the most significant values alluded to by Duncan as guideposts provides a principled, educationally sound middle way to resolve the disagreements. I illustrate this in three important policy areas: standards, accountability and school improvement.

In identifying the key principles, it's useful to start with one sometimes invoked as the preeminent principle: traditional state/local responsibility for public schools. But this value, by itself, cannot legitimately be decisive because five other values are similarly significant and relevant:

  • National interest In the high-tech and internationally competitive 21st century, a strong national economic, civic, social and security interest is needed in all American children becoming well educated and maximally productive.
  • What works A fundamental American government belief should do what works and avoid wastefully doing what doesn't, let alone cause harm.
  • Congressional authority A superior constitutional authority (and responsibility) for Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare, including authority to impose reasonable conditions on the use of federal grants in the State
  • Equal protection A constitutional mandate for all governments to provide equal protection to any persons, including students.
  • ESEA's purpose ESEA's underlying purpose of assuring equal educational opportunity for disadvantaged children to become academically proficient.

Principles and standards. Millions of disadvantaged students nationally lack the challenging curriculum they need. Federally requiring State ESEA grantees provide all students high standards enabling them to be "career and college ready" with or without the Common Core. This substantially addresses this serious problem -- it encourages states to extend comparably high level curriculum to disadvantaged students. This promotes ESEA's purpose, equal protection, the what works principals, national interest and collectively, "the national principles." In today's world, the national principles trump any state interest in providing students below grade-level standards or curriculum.

Accountability. How about federally mandating that high-stakes testing be attached to the standards particularly for teacher/principal evaluations? The National Academy of Sciences has shown that high-stakes testing hasn't been an effective strategy to improve learning under NCLB, or elsewhere. High-stakes testing isn't necessary to identify which schools need improvement. And research shows that rewarding and punishing teachers based on these test scores is unreliable, unfair, harmful and ineffective in improving student learning. This policy is unjustifiable, especially under the state responsibility principles.

School improvement. The Senate education committee's ESEA bill importantly recognizes that the lowest-achieving schools should adopt some practices common to successful turnarounds, including teacher collaboration. Yet, the House gives States essentially total discretion on how to intervene without requiring implementation of any specific practices that work. This would wastefully encourage reinventing the wheel, predictably damaging millions of disadvantaged students nationwide by unnecessarily postponing their improved learning.

Conversely, mandating staff replacement, charter conversion and school closing turnaround models hasn't worked. Moreover, it causes serious harms, including driving out good teachers and fragmenting low-income communities. Here, the national principles and state responsibility support the House position.

More broadly, neither house gives due weight to how much is already known about what works. Both houses fail to require that: the lowest-achieving schools be funded, and directed, to adopt all these elements; all other low-achieving schools likewise adopt the elements, except as prevented by inadequate funding; and for improvement and accountability, all low-achieving schools publicly report selected statistical indicators of how much they're implementing the elements. It's time for Congress to stop avoiding the obvious and induce states to do what works.

In short, Duncan is offering Congress a critical opening to finally end debilitating delay in overhauling NCLB. Now it's up to Democratic and Republican, Senate and House, education committee leaders, Congress's top leadership, Duncan and President Obama to reanalyze their parties' ESEA policies under the relevant guideposts. Reach a principled compromise on the ESEA reauthorization -- a sound middle way -- before Congress is consumed by the 2014 elections.

Time is short. America's vulnerable children are waiting for you.

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