10 steps to a better ESEA

This morning, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released our ESEA Briefing Book. The report serves two purposes: First, to provide helpful background for reporters, analysts, and even hill staffers following the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). Hence, we identify 10 of the key issues that Congress must resolve to get a bill across the finish line, and offer the major options on the table (and their pros and cons) for each one.

The second purpose is to offer our own recommendations, in line with what we've been calling "Reform Realism" for two years now. Reform Realism--a pro-school-reform orientation that is also realistic about what the federal government can (and cannot) do well in K-12 education--entails three main principles:

?Tight-loose? ? Greater national clarity about our goals and expectations for students (i.e., standards linked to real-world demands of college and career), but much greater flexibility around how states, communities, and schools actually get their students there.

Transparency instead of Accountability ? Results-based accountability in education is vital, but it can't successfully be imposed from Washington. Instead, Uncle Sam should ensure that our education system's results?and finances?are transparent to the public, to parents, to local and state officials (and voters), and, of course, to educators.

Incentives over Mandates ?When Uncle Sam seeks to promote specific reforms in education, he should do so through carrots rather than sticks?and through competitive grant programs rather than formulas.

Reform Realism entails a radical rethinking of the federal role in education, one that would be much more focused, and, we think, tailored to Washington's capacity and expertise. These are our 10 specific recommendations. (More details here.)

  1. Expect states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt rigorous (i.e., ?college- and career-ready?) academic standards in reading and math (either the Common Core standards or equally rigorous ones).
  2. Likewise, expect states to adopt rigorous "cut scores" on tests aligned to those standards--cut scores that signify true readiness for college and career.
  3. Require states to develop the capacity to measure student growth over time.
  4. Demand regular testing in science and history, not just reading and math, in order to push back against the narrowing of the curriculum.
  5. Eliminate AYP and instead require states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt school rating systems that provide transparent information to educators, parents, taxpayers, and voters. Such state reporting systems would have to be pegged to college and career readiness and, for high schools, to graduation rates. They would have to rate all schools annually on their effectiveness and include certain elements such as disaggregated data about subgroup performance.
  6. Eliminate all federally mandated interventions in low-performing schools. Allow states to decide when and how to address failing schools.
  7. Eliminate the Highly Qualified Teachers mandate.
  8. Rather than demand ?comparability? of services across Title I and non-Title I schools, require districts to report detailed school-level spending information (so as to make spending inequities across and within districts more transparent).
  9. Offer states the option of signing flexibility agreements that would give them greater leeway over the use of their federal funds and that would enable them to target resources more tightly on the neediest schools.
  10. Whenever possible, turn reform-oriented formula grant programs into competitive ones. Specifically, transform Title II into a series of competitive grant programs, including Race to the Top, I3, charter-school expansion and improvement, a competitive version of School Improvement Grants, and an expanded Teacher Incentive Fund.

In essence, we propose greater federal prescriptiveness (?tight?) around standards, tests, cut scores, and data systems, and much less federal regulation (?loose?) of sanctions, interventions, teacher quality, and almost everything else.

What Will Critics Say?

The education establishment will complain that our proposal maintains No Child Left Behind's focus on annual testing and school ratings. That's true, but the public has the right to know what kinds of results our schools are producing. Furthermore, with stronger standards, ?next generation? assessments, and less intrusion from Washington when it comes to ?interventions,? our proposal will reduce the harmful pressure on schools to teach to basic-skills tests, and will shift the focus to high-quality instruction.

Many reformers will worry that, by backing away from federally-mandated ?accountability,? we will turn the clock back on improvements for poor and minority students. Further, they will complain that we are missing an opportunity to promote rigorous teacher evaluations and redistribute quality teachers. We share their interest in these reforms, but the evidence is clear: Uncle Sam can't force states and districts to do teacher evaluation, accountability, school turnarounds, or anything else particularly well. What Washington can do is ensure transparency around results and spending (including school-to-school funding inequities); state-level reformers should pick it up from there.

Some conservatives will argue that we don't go far enough to minimize the federal role. They will quarrel with requiring states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, assessments, and cut scores. And they will push for even greater flexibility in spending?allowing states to use federal education funds for almost any purpose. We share their concern about federal overreach?and think our proposal would amount to a dramatic reduction in the federal footprint on education. But if conservatives want no requirements from Washington, they should eliminate federal education programs outright. If federal taxpayers are spending billions of dollars a year on education, they at least deserve to know where the money is going and what it's producing by way of results.

Our approach to Reform Realism?while a significant departure from No Child Left Behind?has much in common with the Obama Administration's ESEA ?Blueprint? and is consistent with where many Congressional Republicans are heading. It could be the way forward. Give our briefing book a read!

- Mike Petrilli

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