The Return of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Reauthorization
If you have a generally pessimistic view of how our federal government works, and have been distressed about lack of productivity by Congress in recent years, read this quote from Senate education committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and then you can stop reading this blog post.
"I know that there will have to be 60 votes to move out of the Senate, 60 votes to go to conference, and 60 votes to pass a bill in the end. That takes working with all senators here, including those on the other side. I also know ... that if we want it to be a law, it takes a presidential signature and that president today is President Obama."
With a U.S. Senate of 56 Republicans and 46 Democrats and Independents, a GOP House and a Democratic Administration, it’s hard to see how federal education reform legislation can be successfully passed with this divided government.
However, if you enjoy a good policy debate, then welcome to a new round of Reauthorizing the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA)!
Recent History of ESEA Attempts
So here we are again, for the fourth time, looking at an effort to reauthorize the ESEA– last passed as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. A quick history for those catching up to this year’s education action:
- 2007 – House Education Committee puts forth a discussion draft that would have allowed growth models and multiple measures to track student progress. This draft also allowed states to provide specific interventions to failing schools, which many have commented sounds like the current waivers provided by the Administration to most states.
- 2011/12 – Both the House and Senate had bills – House education committee chairman John Kline (R-MN) sought to roll back the federal education role, and then-Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) bill was bipartisan enough to get three GOP votes in a committee vote.
- 2013 – Again, House and Senate bills were considered. The House bill was similar to the Kline bill of 2012, but ended up - through a floor vote - with a very controversial provision allowing Title I dollars to follow the students, which many consider a form of voucher. Neither bill gained support from members of the other party. For further details on this legislative attempt, please see my blog post from June 2013.
- 2014 – Administration strategy to grant “ESEA Flexibility” waivers by U.S. Department of Education reaches 46 states relieving pressure of onerous NCLB provisions like labeling schools as “failing” but antagonizes state leaders seeking more flexibility.
- 2015 - With a change in Senate leadership as a result of the November 2014 election, Senate education committee Chairman Alexander has now circulated a new 387-page discussion draft and pledged to have his committee consider legislation by mid-February.
What’s In the Alexander Draft Bill?
Senate Hearing on Testing
Yesterday was the first education committee meeting of the year and a hearing was held on the precise role of the federal government in supporting annual testing and assessments of public school students.
Six witnesses (two teachers, a deputy education commissioner, a superintendent, a researcher, and a civil rights leader) spoke about the importance of student testing, if done correctly, accurately, and without disrupting instruction. The Senate committee members took turns trying to identify how much testing is because of the federal (NCLB) mandate, and how much occurs at the state and district level. Chairman Alexander considers this testing issue to be an open question at this point, one that they’ll have to work through.
The ironic part to all of this testing debate is that even one of the NCLB architects thinks that the testing has gone too far:
“Why [states and districts] chose to have tests on top of tests on top of tests” instead of improving instruction “is beyond me,” he said. The testing mania not only spurred the anti-NCLB backlash, but it flat out didn’t work, Kress said: “If you spend all your time weighing your pig, when it comes time to sell the pig, you’re going to find out you haven’t spent enough time feeding the pig.” [emphasis added due to the wonderful student-as-pig reference] - Sandy Kress, former Bush education adviser and former Pearson testing official, as reported by Politico
Positions of Leading Education Sector Organizations
There’s already a very interesting diversity of positions among the varied education sector. Here’s a simple roundup of some of the statements:
American Federal of Teachers – “Schools and districts should be held accountable for access to advanced courses and well-rounded curriculum, programs that support social and emotional learning, and measures of student learning that are not limited to traditional standardized tests.”
Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) – “The members of CCSSO support measuring student progress at least once a year because every parent has a right to know how their child is performing academically in public school. At the same time, we encourage innovation in our states so they can explore new, and possibly better, ways for measuring the academic progress of students in the future.”
Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights – “Now is not the time to make a U-turn in holding states and school districts accountable for providing a quality education to all children. Unfortunately, Chairman Alexander’s opening proposal would send us back to a dark time in our nation when schools across the country, operating with no federal oversight, could freely ignore the needs of disadvantaged students."
National Educational Association - “…We must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas. Parents and educators know that the one-size-fits-all annual federal testing structure has not worked. We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students…And we should move toward a smarter accountability system that looks at more than just a test score, but focuses on the many factors that are indicative of school and student success, and highlight gaps in equity that must be addressed.”
Where Do the Arts Fit Into All of This?
Great question – and a hard answer to pin down at this point.
- Our greatest policy leverage since NCLB’s 2002 passage has been the inclusion of “arts” in the definition of “core academic subjects”. The Alexander draft deletes the definition and doesn’t appear to establish any kind of replacement. That would jeopardize the long-established federal leadership in supporting 10 discrete curricular subjects and allow each state to decide how to support arts education as part of their complete education, or not. This is a major area of concern.
- For years, most research has shown the narrowing of school curriculum due to the over-emphasis on testing and the arts are often pushed out of the school day. So while a reduction in testing might address this concern, it’s still important to realize that the arts can, and need to be, assessed. Through the new national, voluntary, core arts standards launched last year, the arts can offer authentic assessment models like their accompanying model cornerstone assessments.
- The 21st Century Community Learning Center program, terminated in Alexander draft, provides over $1 billion each year in support for after-school programs throughout the country – programs that overwhelmingly include the arts as a daily activity.
- The small but important federal Arts In Education grant program, which has spent a decade now funding over 200 model arts education programs would be terminated, leaving dozens of four-year grants hanging out to dry (up).
Terminating the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is bad too. That program supports the lowest performing 5% of schools with targeted funding. In fact, the President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities’ Turnaround Arts program (which uses SIG funds) just released its study on how the arts can be a catalyst for turning around schools. The schools in the program demonstrated an average 22.5% increase in math proficiency and 12.6% increase in reading proficiency!
Final evaluation report from the Turnaround Arts Initiative
At yesterday’s hearing we heard from Chairman Alexander that he’s accepting public comments (email them to FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov) on his draft legislation until Monday, February 2nd. He announced a second hearing on Tuesday, January 27 that will include school leaders and teachers. He’s hoping to complete committee consideration of the bill by the end of February, by which point we’ll learn about further policy interests of committee members, some of which may relate to the policy concerns I’ve raised above.
The 85+ National Cosponsors of Arts Advocacy Day have been busily reconsidering the federal arts education issue briefs, so that advocates can come to Washington to share perspectives with their congressional delegations.
Lastly, we’ll also be waiting to see what the House education committee chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), puts together on his side of the Capitol, which is largely expected to use the failed 2013 bill as a starting point. Kline will work with new senior Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) on a bill and has announced a timetable of anticipated House floor passage by the end of March.
As a closing note, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a conference audience yesterday that he thinks at this point there’s a 50% chance that ESEA will be reauthorized. Stay tuned.