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What Arne Duncan’s Speech Means for Possible ESEA Reauthorization

In a speech yesterday, Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the administration’s key priorities for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the latest iteration of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). His speech serves as a prologue to the Republican Congress’ reauthorization push to scale back the federal role in education and undermine the administration’s key reforms. Leading that effort are Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the helms of the Senate and House education committees, who are slated to unveil their proposals soon.

The movement to reauthorize NCLB is long overdue—the law has been up for reauthorization since 2007—but not new. Multiple past efforts failed mostly due to partisan politics and debates over accountability, particularly related to a mandate on teacher evaluation based on student outcomes. While it’s too soon to tell whether partisan politics will preclude reauthorization this go-around, the big topic of debate is clear: the law’s annual testing mandate. Parents, teachers unions, and states’ weariness with testing has reached new heights this year. Alexander and Kline have indicated they could do away with the annual testing requirement despite strong reasons to keep it. Meanwhile, Duncan and the Obama administration have committed to annual testing for civil rights and accountability reasons.

If the administration won’t budge on the annual testing requirement, are there any areas where it might give a little? Here are our first thoughts on the priorities laid out in Duncan’s speech, and what they might mean for a possible bipartisan reauthorization.

  1. Testing– Duncan affirmed the administration’s commitment to annual testing for students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Still, he readily acknowledged the high volume of testing in many U.S. schools and suggested a need for fewer state and local assessments. He proposed a revised ESEA that would require states to set limits on the amount of time spent on state and local tests. Funding in President Obama’s budget would also be set aside to support states in streamlining their number and quality of assessments. But, given Congressional Republicans’ antipathy towards increasing the federal role in education, it seems unlikely Congress will be amenable to a mandatory restriction of states’ testing time. And without specifics on that restriction, it is unclear whether it would have any teeth. Congress probably won’t be too keen to accept more federal spending on tests either—even if the intent is to help states “streamline.”
  2. Accountability– As part of the administration’s commitment to testing, Duncan also highlighted the need for federal reporting of student progress, including by student subgroups. He highlighted the need for accountability requirements to ensure that states continue to reward student growth and provide support to students who fall behind. He indicated that the administration would “stand strong for accountability” but without getting into too many details on exactly how. In its 2010 ESEA Blueprint, the administration proposed granting states flexibility in developing school improvement and support strategies to make progress toward performance requirements but made it clear that there would be real rewards and consequences for student growth or lack thereof. While the big debate so far has been about annual testing, we should soon see the tides turn toward NCLB’s state performance requirements.
  3. Teacher evaluation – Duncan also stuck to the administration’s guns with regards to requiring teacher evaluation based, in part, on student outcomes. Such multiple measure teacher evaluation systems were one of the administration’s hallmark reforms incentivized by Race to the Top. As a result, states across the country have implemented more robust teacher evaluation and improvement systems to help ensure all students have access to effective teaching. But, the administration will not only face push-back from congressional Republicans who seem keen on gutting the teacher evaluation mandate. It will also face continued antagonism from teacher union leadership who believe that tests are an unreliable measure of teaching quality. Michael Petrilli recently argued that Republican push-back against annual testing is really just a bluff to get the administration to soften its grip on teacher evaluation. But, the president’s veto power ought to be strong enough to withstand this tactic.
  4. Resources– Acknowledging that genuine educational improvements and greater equity will not come from accountability alone, Duncan called for an increase in resources to support students and educators in schools. This builds on the administration’s 2010 ESEA Blueprint which encouraged greater resource equity between high- and low-poverty schools. He again alluded to the President’s budget, which will call for a $2.7 billion hike in spending on ESEA programs with $1 billion directed at Title I. He said the administration would “fight” for greater resources in coming ESEA debates, but any increase in federal spending will likely be met with unified Republican opposition.
  5. Preschool– Increasing children’s access to high-quality early learning has always been a priority for the Obama Administration. No surprise, then, that it featured prominently in this speech. The Secretary emphasized the importance of early education stating, “no family should be denied preschool for their children.” Duncan also said that expanding children’s access to high-quality preschool should be part of a new ESEA. This language seems to build on the administration's 2010 ESEA Blueprint which called for “continued Title I support of preschool.” Title I funds are allowed to be used for children, birth-to-five, but few schools use these dollars to support early education programs. Perhaps a portion of the additional $1 billion proposed for Title I could be used to encourage districts and schools to put dollars toward supporting children’s learning and development prior to school entry. Or maybe the Administration hopes to make the new Preschool Development Grant program part of ESEA. Either way, as in the past, an increased focus on early learning in ESEA will be tough to move forward.

So, what does this all mean for a possible ESEA reauthorization? In laying out the administration’s priorities, Duncan’s speech suggests that the road to bipartisanship will be both bumpy and fraught. Will Congressional Republicans introduce a bill without the annual testing mandate, as they’ve indicated they might, which Obama will then veto? Or will they take the administration’s priorities—particularly around ensuring equal educational opportunity through annual tests along with school and teacher accountability—to heart and pursue compromise?

It appears Duncan—and the administration—will not back down from their commitment to staying true to the core of NCLB’s original intent, which was to hold states accountable for improving educational equity for all students and to prompt them to work toward closing achievement gaps among poor and minority students, while granting states some flexibility. Duncan even seems committed to further expanding the federal role.

New America will be following the details of this commitment over the coming weeks and months. We will watch the push for reauthorization closely, including Alexander and Kline’s draft proposals, the former of which is rumored to be coming out this week. Check EdCentral for updates and watch Duncan’s full speech here.