America’s Kids Need a Better Education Law

This op-ed originally appeared in August 25 edition of The Washington Post.

The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken. Congress has gone home for its summer recess without passing a responsible replacement.

That’s too bad. America deserves a better law.

At the heart of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a promise: to set a high bar for all students and to protect the most vulnerable. Success in that effort will be measured in the opportunities for our nation’s children, in a time when a solid education is the surest path to a middle-class life. Tight global economic competition means that jobs will go where the skills are. Raising student performance could not be more urgent.

NCLB Logo

“The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken,” writes Secretary Arne Duncan

No Child Left Behind has given the country transparency about the progress of at-risk students. But its inflexible accountability provisions have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score. NCLB is six years overdue for an update, and nearly all agree that it should be replaced with a law that gives systems and educators greater freedom while continuing to fulfill the law’s original promise.

The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom — with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career. Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities. Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them. The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all. The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach. But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world. History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students.

Yet the backers of a bill passed by the House last month would use this moment to weaken that role and reverse reforms that carry enormous benefits for children. Others would retreat from ongoing efforts to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. Neither would be a smart move.

Let’s not kid ourselves that things are fine. The United States once led the world in the proportion of its young people who had completed college; today, we are 12th. Three-quarters of our young people are deemed unfit for military service, in part because of gaps in their education. This is no time to sit back.

States must play the central role in leading the education agenda — and their work in partnership with the Education Department provides a road map toward a better law. These states have established high standards, robust teacher and principal evaluations and support systems, smart use of data, and ambitious learning goals. They have made bold efforts to improve our lowest-performing schools. They are also adopting assessments that move beyond today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests.

Consider the new teacher and principal evaluation systems that Tennessee has pioneered. Not only has student proficiency improved in every area — but so has teachers’ support for these rigorous new systems, according to an independent survey. Massachusetts has used its greater flexibility to target federal funds to improve the lowest-performing schools, with significant success.

Such progress offers a vision of what the core principles of a new elementary and secondary education law should be. It must set states free to use their best ideas to support students and teachers. It also must align student learning and growth with career- and college-readiness.

Yet some in Congress would reduce the federal government to a passive check-writer, asking nothing in return for taxpayers’ funds. And they would lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investment in education is the only way we can remain globally competitive. Far better ideas, which build on state and local reform efforts, can be found in the bill passed in June by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change. Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level. We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country. A good law is part of that fight.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Approved: Eight More States Get NCLB Waivers

Secretary Duncan announces new waivers in Connecticut.

Secretary Duncan announces new waivers in Connecticut.

Joined by state and local leaders, educators and students, Secretary Duncan announced earlier today at Connecticut’s historic capitol, that the Obama Administration approved eight additional states for flexibility from key provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The eight states (Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island), brings the total number of states to receive waivers to 19, with an additional 18 applications still under review.

States who receive flexibility under NCLB agree to develop state-level plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership.

Resources:

We Can’t Wait: 10 States Approved for NCLB Flexibility

“We can’t wait,” President Obama said earlier today at a White House event to announce that 10 states have been approved for flexibility in exchange for reform from No Child Left Behind. The ten states approved for flexibility are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones,” the President said, pointing to standards, accountability and closing the achievement gap. “We’ve got to stay focused on those goals,” he said. “But we need to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures.”

In a statement earlier today, Secretary Duncan said that “rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students.”

To get flexibility from NCLB, states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback.

States receiving waivers no longer have to meet 2014 targets set by NCLB but they must set new performance targets for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps.

They also must have accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

Under the state-developed plans, all schools will develop and implement plans for improving educational outcomes for underperforming subgroups of students. State plans will require continued transparency around achievement gaps, but will provide schools and districts greater flexibility in how they spend Title I federal dollars.

Click here to read the press release.

Click here to read the President’s remarks.

Additional information on ESEA Flexibility, including request details, can be found at www.ed.gov/esea/flexibility.

After 10 Years, It’s Time for a New NCLB

The following op-ed appeared in the January 8, 2012 edition of the Washington Post.

Ten years ago today, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law has improved American education in some ways, but it also still has flaws that need to be fixed.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the first time exposed achievement gaps and created a conversation about how to close them. The law has held schools accountable for the performance of all students no matter their race, income level, English-proficiency or disability. Schools can no longer point to average scores while hiding an achievement gap that is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

But NCLB has significant flaws. It created an artificial goal of proficiency that encouraged states to set low standards to make it easier for students to meet the goal. The act’s emphasis on test scores as the primary measure of school performance has narrowed the curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all accountability system has mislabeled schools as failures even if their students are demonstrating real academic growth. The law is overly prescriptive and doesn’t allow districts to create improvement plans based on their unique needs. It also has not supported states as they create teacher evaluation systems that use multiple measures to identify highly effective teachers and support the instructional improvement of all teachers.

The question today is how to build on NCLB’s success and fix its problems. Fortunately, states are leading the way. In Washington, we need to do everything we can to support their work.

Over the past two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have shown tremendous courage by raising their academic standards to measure whether students are truly prepared for success in college and careers. To measure students’ progress toward those standards, 44 states and the District are working together to create assessments based on the common set of standards developed by educators, governors and state education chiefs. What’s more, states and school districts have adopted bold and comprehensive reforms to support academic achievement for all students. These reforms are improving teacher and principal evaluation and support, as well as turning around low-performing schools and expanding access to high-quality schools.

Unfortunately, the law is unintentionally creating barriers for these reforms. States that have chosen to raise standards will soon need to explain why student scores are dropping. Instead, they should be able to highlight students’ academic growth. School districts are stuck using NCLB’s definition of a highly qualified teacher based solely on paper credentials, without taking into account the teacher’s ability to improve student learning. And the law continues to encourage schools to narrow curriculum at the expense of important subjects such as history, civics, science, the arts and physical education. After 10 years of these flawed policies, our nation’s teachers and students deserve better.

President Obama is offering states flexibility from NCLB in exchange for comprehensive plans to raise standards; to create fair, flexible and focused accountability systems; and to improve systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support. This flexibility will not give states a pass on accountability. It will demand real reform.

So far, 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have expressed interest in this flexibility. The Education Department is working with the first group of applicants.

Although Congress has begun the process of reauthorizing NCLB, we can’t wait for the extended legislative process to be completed. States and school districts need relief from NCLB right now.

Congress has yet to act even though No Child Left Behind is four years overdue for renewal. Education reform requires elected officials from both sides of the aisle to come together. We can’t let partisan politics stand in the way.

One way or another, NCLB needs significant changes. Our states and schools deserve flexibility from its teach-to-the-test culture and one-size-fits-all accountability system.

Even as we work with states to offer flexibility from existing law, the Obama administration will support a bipartisan effort by Congress to create a law that supports a well-rounded education while holding schools, districts and states accountable for results.

We all need to work together so that 10 years from now, America’s children will have the sort of federal education law they so richly deserve — one that challenges them to achieve to high standards, and provides them with the highly effective teachers and principals who can prepare them for success in college and the workforce.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Reforming NCLB Requires Flexibility and Accountability

Fixing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is four years overdue. In March of 2010, the Administration unveiled its Blueprint for Reform. Since then we’ve worked on a bipartisan basis to craft a comprehensive reform bill that would help give our children the world-class education they need and deserve.  Today marks an important step forward.

Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Mike Enzi — Chairman and Ranking Member respectively of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — introduced a bipartisan bill to officially overhaul NCLB.  I deeply appreciate the efforts of Senators Harkin and Enzi to build in more flexibility for states and districts, and focus on the goal of building a world-class education system that prepares all students for college and careers.   Increased flexibility at the state and local level is consistent with the administration’s policy on waivers and our Blueprint for Reform.

However, it is equally important that we maintain a strong commitment to accountability for the success of all students, and I am concerned that the Senate bill does not go far enough.  Parents, teachers, and state leaders across the country understand that in order to prepare all of our young people to compete in the global economy, we must hold ourselves and each other accountable at every level of the education system– from the classroom to the school district, from the states to the federal government.  In addition, I am concerned the Senate bill lacks a comprehensive evaluation and support system to guide teachers and principals in continuing to improve their practice.

America cannot retreat from reform.  We must ensure that every classroom in every school is a place of high expectations and high performance.  The fact that we have a bipartisan bill in the Senate is an important and positive development, but it’s only a beginning.  I look forward to working with Congress in the weeks and months ahead to advance this bipartisan effort, address these and other concerns and build a world-class education system that strengthens America’s economy and secures America’s future.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Teacher Makes a Personal Case for NCLB Waivers

I would like President Obama to meet one of my former students, Rashawn*.

Rashawn was a fifth grader, an African-American boy with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my classroom he received a bevy of services relating to his learning and academic disabilities, and yet he struggled mightily with reading and math.

Rashawn came from a tough section of the district and lived well below the poverty line in a broken home. He father was incarcerated. He had dreams of playing in the NBA. His smile set him apart, and he was a hard worker, a talker, and a thinker.

Rashawn entered my class in 2008, shortly before the nation elected Barack Obama to be president. He was far behind his peers academically, but he worked hard. Working as a team, a special educator and I provided Rashawn with rigorous instruction, and we set high expectations. We wanted him to succeed, and he wanted to succeed.  From the beginning of the year to the end, Rashawn made significant academic progress.

But none of that mattered, under the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB). Although he showed academic growth, Rashawn scored as “basic” on Maryland’s tests. According to the statisticians and policymakers, that was a disappointment. As his teacher, NCLB noted that I had failed Rashawn. When my results were printed, he would appear as nothing more than a name and an ID number awash in pink printer ink.

Rashawn is a perfect example of why teachers are crying out for NCLB to be overhauled. NCLB ushered in an era where we no longer ignore children on the periphery. Now, every student counts. That’s one thing NCLB got right.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz

Unfortunately, the NCLB accountability system fails students like Rashawn because it measures only one piece of data at one point in time. We need an accountability system that acknowledges growth and looks upon every student as an asset, not a deficit. We need our country to measure and reward the growth of our students, not just mark where they place on an arbitrary bar.

I would like President Obama to meet Rashawn. It seems that he had the Rashawns of the world in mind when he granted Secretary Duncan the authority to issue waivers for some areas of NCLB. The President still insists on a high bar for all children, but he gets it that what Rashawn has achieved transcends what is indicated by a single-measure on a poorly-designed bubble test.

I am thankful that with waivers, states won’t be given a pass on maintaining high expectations for all students, and they surely won’t be allowed to toss aside teacher accountability. Our students need schools with high expectations, and states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards. But they will also be given the chance to innovate and design plans that meet the needs of their unique populations of students. And they will be allowed to use multiple measures of teaching effectiveness, so that teaching competence will no longer be boiled down to a solitary line of printer ink.

I haven’t seen Rashawn in a few years. I hope that he aspires to attend and complete college and to play basketball while he’s there. I dream about him earning a teaching degree and joining me as a colleague. Fixing NCLB would be one way to support all of the Rashawns in the classrooms throughout this great country. Something even better, I think, than meeting the President.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Rockville, Md. 

*My student’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.

Education Community Weighs In on NCLB Flexibility

“This isn’t just the right thing to do for our kids -– it’s the right thing to do for our country,” said President Obama earlier today when he announced details on how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act- or No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

President Obama Greets Students

President Barack Obama greets Keiry Herrera, a sixth grade student at Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., following remarks on the need to provide states with relief from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“We can’t afford to wait for an education system that is not doing everything it needs to do for our kids,” the President said. “We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it, and replace it with something that does. We’ve got to act now.”

The education community has been weighing in on the President’s announcement, and here is a sample of what they’re saying:

National PTA: “National PTA believes this package promotes true partnership and collaborative decision-making in education reform; encouraging states and districts to engage with all stakeholders, including parents, in developing state plans and turning around failing schools.”

The Education Trust: “This plan strikes a new balance between the federal and state roles in educating our nation’s children. It does not prescribe particular systems or interventions for the vast majority of schools, instead setting strong goals for states and giving them the flexibility to determine how their schools and districts will meet them.”

National Association of Secondary School Principals: “Principal evaluation has been a front-burner topic for the past several months, and we thank the administration for promoting a model of principal evaluation that incorporates multiple measures and is developed with input from principals.”

NEA: “President Obama has taken a welcome step forward with this plan.  It sets much more realistic goals for schools, while maintaining ESEA’s original commitment to civil rights, high academic standards and success for every student,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

Council of Great City Schools: “The Council of the Great City Schools, the nation’s primary coalition of large urban school districts, announced its support for President Obama’s proposal to waive various provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind program in exchange for an array of school reforms.”

National Association of State Boards of Education: “We want to thank the Administration for recognizing the hard work that states do under the leadership of their respective state boards of education to help make students college- and career-ready,” NASBE Executive Director Brenda Welburn said. “The law passed 10 years ago no longer reflects the progress states have made preparing America’s students for life beyond high school. It is simply unrealistic and unrelated to the work of states today.”

Council of Chief State School Officers: “The one-size-fits-all approach of our current system has become a barrier to state-level progress. We believe that the best way to move forward is for Congress to reauthorize ESEA. In the absence of congressional action, this waiver package will provide states with the authority to continue leading in accountability and education reform, and we look forward to working with our counterparts at the federal level to make sure that all children graduate from high school prepared to succeed in their future endeavors.”

Chiefs for Change: “We applaud both the flexibility waivers will grant states and districts and the reforms the Administration’s waiver policy will reward. We appreciate the Administration’s flexibility for data collection, rewarding progress, and supporting teacher effectiveness polices. Waivers like the ones the Administration laid out today – which do not weaken the rigor or accountability in No Child Left Behind – will help states improve student achievement.”

National School Boards Association: “The proposed NCLB regulatory relief plan is a positive step as it could provide much needed assistance to local school district efforts to improve student achievement.”

Association of School Business Officials International: “We are encouraged and appreciate President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s insight into some of the deficiencies of NCLB,” said John Musso, Executive Director for ASBO International. “The proposed plan allows for more state and local control without compromising some of ESEA’s commitments, including setting high academic standards and an expectation of success for every student.”

Read What NCLB Flexibility Means for You

What NCLB Flexibility Means for You

Earlier today President Obama provided details on how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act- or No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The new flexibility supports local and state education reform across the country in exchange for serious state-led efforts to close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.

Here’s how flexibility may affect you:

For Teachers:

ESEA flexibility will move accountability systems toward decisions that are based on student growth and progress. They will consider more than a single test score measured against an arbitrary proficiency level.  States will be able to look comprehensively at how schools are serving their students and communities, in areas like school climate, access to rigorous coursework, and providing a well-rounded education.

Flexibility also will support States and districts in fixing the broken teacher evaluation systems, by allowing for the use of multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including peer reviews, principal observation, portfolios, and student work.

For Parents:

ESEA Flexibility will let States create honest accountability and support systems that require real change in the worst performing schools, allow for locally tailored solutions based on individual school needs, and recognize schools for success. When schools fall short, parents will know that school leaders will adopt targeted and focused strategies for the students most at risk.

The accountability system also will end the over-emphasis on testing. Parents will like this change for the same reasons that teachers will – it will promote a well-rounded curriculum while giving a fair and responsible assessment of their school’s success in preparing students for college and careers.

For Students:

Under ESEA flexibility, States will begin to move beyond the bubble tests and dumbed-down standards that are based on arbitrary standards of proficiency. By measuring student growth and critical thinking, new assessments will inspire better teaching and greater student engagement across a well-rounded curriculum. By setting standards based on college- and career-readiness, States will challenge students to make progress toward a goal that will prepare them for success in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Click here to download our FAQ about ESEA flexibility (MS Word), and for more detailed information visit ed.gov/esea/flexibility.

Obama Administration Offers Flexibility from No Child Left Behind

Today, the Obama Administration outlined how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – in exchange for serious state-led efforts to close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.

Get the Facts:

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Top 5 Questions About NCLB Flexibility

“We’re still hopeful that Congress can continue its work this fall. In the meantime, states and districts have an opportunity to move forward,” said Secretary Duncan in a statement earlier today announcing the Obama Administration’s plan to provide a process for states to receive flexibility under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.  While more details on the flexibility plan are forthcoming, here is a list of the top five questions about the announcement we are hearing.

1. Why now?

Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is four years late. The Obama administration introduced its Blueprint for Reform sixteen months ago, and President Obama called on Congress in March to finish a bill before the start of the new school year. States, districts, schools and most importantly students cannot wait another school year for this broken law to be fixed.

2. Does the administration’s plan replace Congressional reauthorization?

No, the plan to provide flexibility does not replace a comprehensive reauthorization from Congress. The administration’s plan will provide flexibility to districts and schools to improve student achievement by raising standards while Congress continues to work on reauthorization.

3. Does this regulatory flexibility package offer blanket flexibility to states and districts?

While all states will be eligible for this regulatory flexibility, only states that agree to meet a high bar will receive the flexibility they need to improve education on the ground for students. States granted flexibility would be expected to maintain rigorous accountability, including for subgroups of students.

4. Is there legal authority for the Department to allow this flexibility?

Section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act) allows the Secretary to waive certain statutory or regulatory requirements of the ESEA.

5. When will this flexibility have an impact on the ground?

We will continue to gather ideas from states in the coming month and plan to roll out details of the package in mid-September. We anticipate that this flexibility will begin to have an impact at the end of the 2011-2012 school year and have the most significant impact beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.

 

School Days Highlights June at ED

This week, the U.S. Department of Education introduces School Days, a quick and casual look back at what went on at ED in the previous month.   The video journal covers a dozen large and small events featuring Secretary Arne Duncan and other ED staff, all in just a few minutes.

School Days’ first installment features Arne announcing the Administration’s plan to provide regulatory flexibility around No Child Left Behind (NCLB) if Congress does not complete work on a reauthorization bill before the August recess; the 2011 Presidential Scholars’ visit to Washington;  a farewell to the this year’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows; a graduation ceremony for the Project Search program for  high schools students with disabilities; and more.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Duncan and DC Students Talk on NPR

Secretary Duncan at NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

In an interview earlier this week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Arne Duncan discussed plans to provide regulatory flexibility to states seeking relief from the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) in exchange for enacting educational reforms.

Secretary Duncan Takes Questions on NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

During the live broadcast, the Secretary explained to students in the audience and to host Neal Conan, that doing nothing is not acceptable, and that “where states are raising the bar, where they’re doing the right thing by children, we need to provide them greater flexibility, and we need to meet them half way.”

The Secretary said the best way to fix NCLB’s problems is for Congress to reauthorize NCLB. Yet, with the new school year just months away, the Department of Education is considering ways to provide flexibility for states and districts.

For most of the interview, Duncan took questions from District of Columbia students about Duncan’s support for arts education, his perspective on why teaching quality varies so widely, and his opinion about lengthening the school day. Duncan also answered questions from listeners around the country, including questions regarding how to best serve students with disabilities and over-use of standardized testing.

Listen to the  44-minute interview.

Read the transcript.