On pushing the ESEA boulder up the hill

Along with paralysis over the
budget (and so much else), there’s enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill over
federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising
reform activity at the state level
, we detect barely a heartbeat in
Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue
and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama
Administration offered a decent “blueprint” for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major
fissures within each party—and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the
aisle. Most commentators agree—and staffers privately admit—that chances are
slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right.
It’s a major abdication of responsibility by our nation’s lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially
painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from
the Administration’s proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA
reform proposal
released this week. It
capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good
job of sensitizing the country to the value of detailed student-achievement
data—by district, school, state, and
subgroup. To really have traction, however, those data must be linked to
rigorous standards, decent tests (and other measures), and interstate
comparability. On those points, NCLB faltered—it mandated that states aim
for universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowed them to define proficiency
however they liked. Thankfully the Common Core State Standards Initiative is potentially
coming to the rescue with its rigorous standards, real-world relevance,
upcoming assessments, and coast-to-coast adoption.

Second, NCLB has also shown
the federal government to be utterly incapable of enforcing a nationwide
“accountability and intervention” strategy, of assuring teacher quality, and of
doing myriad other things that comprise the actual operation—and reform—of the
education system. We see little reason for optimism about more successfully
driving reform tomorrow via another layer of top-down federal mandates attached
to formula-based funding programs.

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


Meanwhile, Race to the Top, while
imperfect, has shown that competitive grant programs can stimulate some worthwhile education changes at the state and district

Finally, there are the new
political realities, especially the GOP (and the Tea Party to its right) wanting
Washington to get out of the way of states and districts, and Democrats—some of
them, anyway—wanting reforms for poor kids even if that means getting in the
face of the teacher unions.

Put it together and you have the
makings of a grand bargain, in line with what we’ve termed “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. This philosophy 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.

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 its finances—are transparent to the
public, to parents, to local and state officials (and voters), and, of course,
to educators.

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.

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 ten
specific recommendations. (You can find the 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 with those
    standards—making sure these cut scores 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 reverse curricular narrowing and foster a more complete education
    in key subjects.
  5. Eliminate Adequate
    Yearly Progress (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 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—and other 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 opportunity to sign flexibility agreements that would give them
    greater leeway over the use of their federal funds and would enable them
    to target resources more tightly on the neediest schools.
  10. 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.

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.

No one
will be thrilled with this plan. The education establishment will complain that
our proposal maintains No Child Left Behind’s focus on “teaching to the test.”
Some reformers will worry that, by backing away from federally mandated
“accountability,” we will turn the clock back on improvements for poor and
minority students. And some conservatives will argue that we don’t go far enough
to minimize the federal role.

The other way to look at this plan, however, is as a
clear path to reauthorization—a path that, after suitable compromises on all
sides, will take us to a much better place, federal policy-wise, then where we
are now. Who is ready to lead us there?

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's briefing book from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.