ESEA: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

Yesterday, the Senate began debating what would be the newest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the key federal law governing primary and secondary public education in the United States.  The new “Every Child Achieves Act” proposal that came to the Senate floor yesterday would replace the current iteration, “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), with a sunnier title but remove much of the substance. The key difference is that the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) includes a much reduced, and generally toothless, federal role in ensuring that schools in each state are helping all of their students learn.

Where We’ve Been

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)—Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee which first drafted and considered ECAA—began his remarks yesterday with a sort of federal education history lesson, which seems a good place to start this post as well. The move away from federal PreK-12 oversight in the ECAA is largely due to the backlash against testing and accountability that surfaced during the NCLB era, when more and more schools failed to meet the goals set for them under the law, and began to face federally-mandated sanctions as a result.

Some of the NCLB interventions that underperforming schools were required to undertake were quite drastic compared to anything that had come before, including terminating a large portion of the educators in a school and replacing them with new ones. Parental concerns arose around how much time students were spending preparing for and taking tests, in part because many schools dealt with their anxiety about potential sanctions by trying to help students to be better test takers as opposed to helping them deeply learn important content. At the same time, schools that had been viewed as high-quality based on overall student performance began being labeled “in need of improvement” for their failure to close achievement gaps between different groups of students (white vs. non-white, higher- vs. lower-income, etc.). Learning that their “good school” was labeled this way and targeted for intervention angered educators and more privileged parents in those communities.

To be fair, some of NCLB’s targets were Pollyanna-ish, particularly its goal that 100 percent of students would be deemed proficient on state reading and math tests by 2014. As the 2014 deadline loomed, and with no Congressional action in sight, the Obama Administration’s Education Department stepped in. It instituted a “waiver” application process that enabled states to forego NCLB-required sanctions associated with not meeting the 100 percent proficiency benchmark in return for commitments to: adopt college- and career-ready learning standards, institute multi-measure teacher evaluation systems, and develop their own school accountability plans. Although waivers devolved more control to the states than NCLB did on many levels, it still outlined core requirements for each of these commitments.  The waivers angered many Republican members of Congress—including Sen. Alexander—who believed that the Administration did not have the authority to offer conditions to states requesting waivers from NCLB. It also riled up many typically Democratic-leaning groups, such as the teachers’ unions, who bristled at the inclusion of student learning outcomes in states’ teacher evaluation systems.

Where We’re Going

Which brings us to where we are today. In its current form, ECAA would continue to provide Title I money to low-income schools, but would no longer prescribe academic benchmarks for those schools, leaving that task to states. It also does not prescribe what schools need to do when they don’t meet those state-determined benchmarks.

NCLB passed with bipartisan support 14 years ago, and the fact that the ECAA bill came to the Senate floor with bipartisan support as well exemplifies how far the pendulum has swung in that time on the federal role in school accountability. However, the school accountability debate isn’t over, and it shouldn’t be. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP Committee, made it clear in her opening remarks yesterday that ECAA’s accountability provisions needed to be strengthened. The Obama Administration and the Council of Chief State School Officers both issued statements in the past days calling for greater accountability in ESEA. And the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights coalition has called on Congress to ensure that the bill require states to intervene in schools that are not meeting learning goals for all groups of students. As Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) called out in his remarks on the Senate floor yesterday afternoon, ESEA was originally intended to be a civil rights bill, providing additional funding for schools in low-income communities to ensure that the students they served were getting a quality education.

Senator Booker also eloquently summarized my own thoughts on the federal role in school accountability, and a perspective that one might expect more Republicans to embrace given their traditional focus on federal fiscal responsibility: "It's certainly not asking too much — that we who are putting million and millions of dollars from the federal government into a system — that there is some accountability for dropout factories.”

[pullquote]If federal accountability measures have been deemed successful in pushing states to make positive strides in areas that are important for students, then the burning question is, why back away completely now?[/pullquote]

Even HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Alexander — a proponent of state and local control of education — made the case, albeit unintentionally, for why a federal role in accountability is so important. The Chairman explained on the Senate floor that states don’t need federal oversight for providing preK-12 education because they have made great gains on standards and accountability since NCLB was passed in 2001, and that “Bush and Obama can take some credit for that, and should.” So if federal accountability measures have been deemed successful in pushing states to make positive strides in areas that are important for students, then the burning question is, why back away completely now?

New America’s PreK-12 Education team will continue following the ESEA reauthorization debate in both the House and Senate over the coming days. Come back to EdCentral for insight on various policy areas in addition to school accountability including educator quality, school funding/resource equity, school choice and funding “portability,” students’ ability to opt out of state testing, impact on dual language learners, strengthening early learning, and more."


Melissa Tooley is the director of Educator Quality with New America's Education Policy program. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where she provides research and analysis on PreK-12 policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.