This week saw the release of President Obama’s annual budget request, which outlines
a proposal for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA), a.k.a. No Child Left Behind. The ideas floated therein have
promise, but no matter what Secretary Duncan and his boss would like to
accomplish this year in education policy, the odds of completing a
full-dress reauthorization of ESEA between now and the November election
are vanishingly small.

That’s partly because of general Congressional dysfunction, partly
due to toxic politics, and partly the result of competing agenda
priorities. But the biggest single reason is that this massive statute
has so darn many moving parts.

Those of us who focus on a handful of contentious issues prominently
associated with NCLB (standards, AYP, school improvement, etc.)
routinely forget that this edition of ESEA--the seventh or eighth since
1965--runs to more than ten major “titles,” over a hundred separate
sections, and 1000+ pages. The overwhelming bulk of it has nothing to do with the vexing NCLB issues, yet every single page of it is fodder for dispute, debate, and amendment.

I refer to things like bilingual education, the “emergency immigrant
education program,” “safe and drug-free schools,” “smaller learning
communities,” and the late Senator Kennedy’s pet “Educational, Cultural,
Apprenticeship, and Exchange Programs for Alaska Natives, Native
Hawaiians, and Their Historical Whaling and Trading Partners in
Massachusetts” (that would be Subpart 12 of Part D of Title V).

True, such programmatic obesity burdens every major federal law
nowadays, whether it’s health care, the environment, economic stimulus,
immigration, taxes, or defense. It’s a major contributor to--as well as
vivid product of--the dysfunction and gridlock on Capitol Hill, not to
mention Uncle Sam’s own expanding waistline and his ever-deeper reach
into every corner of our lives.

The last full-scale overhaul of ESEA was, of course, in 2001. That
took a full year and consumed an enormous amount of legislative energy.
Whether it would even have been accomplished absent the bipartisan
“defense of the realm” spirit that followed 9/11 is unknowable. What is
certain is that Messrs. Bush, Kennedy, Gregg, Boehner, and Miller, aided
by such canny strategists as Sandy Kress, managed to forge and retain a
high level of bipartisan agreement on education policy that involved
major concessions by both parties. (Note, too, that 2001 was not an
election year.)

If Congress tries such a thing this year, however, it will totally
bog down--and not necessarily on the “NCLB issues” that consume us
wonks. It will bog down over hundreds of amendments and votes, and deals
and failed deals, related to things like teacher training for Native
American schools, sex education, and the distribution formula for
“impact aid.” Then it will bog down all over again because Duncan and
Obama, to their credit, want to keep riding the “Race to the Top” wave
and shift the basic focus of federal policy from formulas to competition
and from inputs to results. That’s a lot harder than turning an
aircraft carrier.

Legislative paralysis will follow. But is that the only option? Is
there any alternative to paralysis on one hand and the status quo on the
other? Perhaps. It would, however, call for a far more tailored
approach to ESEA, tight controls on what is deemed “germane”--and some
level of renewed commitment to bipartisanship.

If those are beyond imagining, don’t read any farther. But if they’re at least thinkable, please consider this:

Instead of reauthorizing ESEA, repair NCLB. Identify the 5-10 biggest problems with the current operation of Ti
tle I as an engine of education reform and see if those can be solved. Period. Nothing more. Don’t touch anything else. Go step-by-step.

It may not be terribly difficult to reach broad agreement on what
those problems are. My own list, for example, would include these top
eight items:

  1. 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Politically-correct wishful
    thinking that ain’t gonna happen. (Kudos to Obama’s budget proposal for
    recognizing this.)
  2. Wildly discrepant state standards and cut scores (as well as varied
    testing practices) that lead to non-comparable results and mean that a
    school's fate depends more than anything else on what state it's in.
  3. Identifying far too many schools as "needing improvement” rather than focusing on the most troubled.
  4. Being far too prescriptive about what states/districts are supposed
    to do with/about/to their low performing schools (and districts), little
    of which then actually happens.
  5. Disallowing use of “multiple measures” to determine AYP, leading to inordinate emphasis on reading and math skills.
  6. The "single bar" problem. Achievement “growth” should count, too. For all kids, not just those nearing “proficiency.”
  7. The choice provisions aren’t working.
  8. Neither is the “highly-qualified teachers” section.

Congress’s list might be longer or shorter. To qualify for inclusion,
there would have to be agreement--both houses, both parties, Education
Department, too--that such-and-such is an urgent problem. Anything not
winning such agreement gets dropped from the list.

Then see how many of those problems might lend themselves to
consensus-style solutions. It will be a smaller number, no doubt about
it. Maybe just two or three. Maybe the only things to elicit agreement
would be better benchmarking of state proficiency standards to NAEP or
to the emerging “common core”; the inclusion of “growth” along with
absolute achievement in determining AYP; and some way of targeting
“improvement” on a smaller number of really appalling schools.

That would be just three. Maybe there could be more. Possibly fewer.
But every single one of them would be worth doing. Every one would solve
a bona fide problem. Every one would move the improvement of American
K-12 education a step forward.

The rest of ESEA would trundle onward as it is, for better and worse,
until the day when wholesale reauthorization is thinkable. Today isn’t
that day. Tomorrow might be. Meanwhile, why not oil the really squeaky
wheels and tighten a few loose screws that also happen to matter?

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