Opportunity Is Not Optional: Secretary Duncan’s Vision for America’s Landmark Education Law

Secretary Duncan laid out a bold vision for the ESEA that continues a focus on the nation’s most vulnerable students. (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan laid out a bold vision for the ESEA that continues a focus on the nation’s most vulnerable students. (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Arne Duncan laid out a sweeping vision for the nation’s landmark education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in a speech today at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. On the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the ESEA bill, he called for a new law that will work to ensure strong opportunities for all students, and protect the most vulnerable.

In his speech, Duncan said that as the country moves away from No Child Left Behind—the latest version of ESEA—Congress faces a choice of whether to take a path that moves towards President Johnson’s promise of equity, or a path that walks away from it. He said:

Let’s choose the path that makes good on the original promise of this law. Let’s choose the path that says that we, as a nation, are serious about real opportunity for every single child.

I believe we can work together – Republicans and Democrats – to move beyond the out-of-date, and tired, and prescriptive No Child Left Behind law.

I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – and more money, more resources – than they receive today.

A law that recognizes that no family should be denied preschool for their children, and reflects the real scientific understanding that learning begins at birth, not somehow at age 5.

A law that recognizes the critically hard, important work educators across America are doing to support and raise expectations for our children, and lifts up the profession of teaching by recognizing that teachers need better preparation, better support, and more resources to do their hugely important job.

A law that says that educational opportunity isn’t an option, it’s a civil right, a moral imperative, and the best way we can strengthen our nation and attract and retain great jobs that expand the middle class.

Duncan pointed to the progress our country has made, but warned that, “we cannot allow ourselves to believe we are yet doing justice by all of our young people.”

Not when other countries are leaping ahead of us in preparing their children both for college and the world of work. We’re not there yet when millions of children start kindergarten already too far behind simply because their parents couldn’t afford preschool.

Not when thousands of preschoolers are being suspended. And sadly, we know exactly who many of the 3- and 4-year olds often are – our young boys of color.

Not when a third of black students attend high schools that don’t even offer calculus.

Not when across the nation, far too many students of all races and all backgrounds take, and pass the required classes for high school graduation – and are still not qualified to go on to public university and take real college-level classes.

Collectively, we owe our children, and our nation, something so much better.

In laying out the path forward, Secretary Duncan said that reauthorization must be one that expands opportunity for every child, “strengthens our nation economically, improves resources for schools, and supports and helps to modernize the teaching profession.”


“This country can’t afford to replace ‘The fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of ‘It’s optional.'”


Duncan made clear what a “responsible reauthorization” of ESEA must accomplish, including ensuring every child receives an education that sets him or her up for success in college, careers and life. He said that every child deserves the opportunity for a strong start through high-quality preschool, and that education that includes arts, history, foreign languages, and advanced math and science is essential, not a luxury.

ESEA must also give schools and teachers the resources they need to help students achieve, including teacher pay that reflects the importance of the work they do—regardless of the tax base of their community. Secretary Duncan also spoke to excessive testing, stating that parents, teachers, and students should be able to know what progress students are making, but that tests—and preparation for them—shouldn’t take up too much time away from instruction. “I believe we need to take action to support a better balance,” Duncan said.

Read all of the details of Secretary Duncan’s plan for a responsible reauthorization.

Duncan made clear that he believes that schools and teachers need more resources to do their vital work, and made clear that he believes that schools and teachers need greater resources and funds to do their vital work, and announced that President Obama will seek an increase of $2.7 billion in ESEA funding in his 2016 budget request.

Secretary Duncan concluded his speech by warning that we must not turn back the clock on education progress:

The moral and economic consequences of turning back the clock are simply unacceptable.

We would be accepting the morally and economically unsupportable notion that we have some kids to spare. We don’t.

And while there is much to debate in reauthorizing ESEA, Duncan noted there are areas for productive compromise, and that traditionally, education has been, and must continue to be, a bipartisan cause.

We are at an educational crossroads in America, with two distinct paths for moving forward.

This choice, this crossroads, has profound moral and economic consequences.

In making choices for our children’s future, we will decide who we are as a nation.

For the sake of our children, our communities, and our country, let’s make the right choice.

Resources:

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.

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“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