Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

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Yesterday, joined by civil rights leaders, students, and educators, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

In a speech, followed by a question and answer, Duncan discussed the education progress that America has seen in the past half-century and the work still ahead in closing achievement gaps – including the need for Congress to reauthorize a strong ESEA–also known as No Child Left Behind.

ESEA marked an extraordinary step for education, and for civil rights. The fight for educational opportunity and the fight for civil rights always have been and always will be inextricably linked.

ESEA has built a foundation under our nation’s schools, helping to raise the bar for every child, and to ensure that the resources are there for those most in need. It’s helped create an expectation that no matter where you live in this country, when students aren’t making progress, local leaders will come together to make change—especially if they are students with disabilities, students who are still learning English, students from a particular racial group, students who live in poverty, or students coming from particular school.

But Duncan said that there is still work to go:

“Our work will not be done until we ensure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise.”

Duncan told the audience that teachers and principals know that ESEA is long overdue for repairs, and what needs to be done to fix the bill.

It is broken and it is wildly out of date. We need a new law that does a lot more to support innovation and creativity by educators and communities—and a lot less to stifle that creativity.

A new law must stay true to the vision that opportunity isn’t somehow optional; it’s a right—for every child in this country. We cannot afford to leave any of our talent on the sidelines.

Opportunity is a right that inspires teachers and principals to literally dedicate their lives to empowering our children.

It’s a right that encourages parents to expect their child will graduate from college and succeed in life, even if, even maybe especially if, those parents never had that chance themselves.

Our work is not done until we have lived up to that promise. To do that, we need a strong new ESEA that fulfills the right of all children to have a real opportunity to succeed.

Watch highlights from today’s speech:

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Patrick Kerr is a member of the Communications Development division in the Office of Communications and Outreach

A Bipartisan Proposal to Fix No Child Left Behind: A Good First Step; Further to Go

Earlier this week, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate education committee, announced an agreement to begin a bipartisan process of fixing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The committee will consider the proposed bill next week. This agreement, however, is just a beginning. As I detailed in a speech yesterday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., there is work ahead to deliver a bill that fulfills the historic mission of this law.

Congress originally passed ESEA 50 years ago this week. Then as now, it stood to connect civil rights to education, enshrining America’s core value that every child deserves a quality education, no matter her race, disability, neighborhood, or first language. I am happy to see this bipartisan effort come together, yet I also know the distance we have to go toward a bill that establishes an expectation of excellence for all American children, and stays true to ESEA’s role as a guarantor of civil rights.

ESEA must continue this nation’s vital progress in closing gaps for vulnerable students. In that effort, there is more yet to do.

Positive Steps

The Alexander-Murray proposal moves reauthorization forward in important ways, including requiring States to adopt college- and career-ready standards as part of the effort to ensure that all students are prepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce. It also would require that states set achievement goals and graduation rate goals for all students and student subgroups. And, the proposal would provide more flexibility than NCLB for states and school districts, and ensure that parents know how their children and children’s school are doing by keeping requirements for annual statewide assessments.

The bipartisan agreement also provides improved support for educators, especially for principals and teachers. And it takes steps in the right direction by promoting transparency on resource inequities and rejecting earlier proposals to allow resources to be siphoned away from our neediest schools.

Further to Go

Yet there are areas where this bill doesn’t do enough to support the learning of students throughout this country. As the bill progresses, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that a final bill will do more to maintain the crucial federal role in protecting our country’s most vulnerable students. The goal is not just to identify a problem, but to do something about it.

A good bill must expand access to high-quality preschool, to give children a chance to get off to a strong start in life.

A good bill must ensure that schools and educators have the resources and funds they need to do their jobs – and that schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students receive their fair share of those resources.

A good bill must ensure meaningful accountability, and support for action, in any school where subgroups or the whole school are persistently underperforming.

A good bill must ensure bolder action and focused resources for the lowest-performing five percent of schools, including America’s lowest-performing high schools.

A good bill must ensure strong support for innovations by local educators that change outcomes for students.

And a good bill needs to close a long-standing loophole in federal law that undermines the ability of Title I funds to provide supplemental resources for schools serving high concentrations of students from low-income families, and allows local funding inequities to continue.

Photo of Star

Star Brown

Yesterday, at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., I had the great opportunity to share the story of four-year-old Star Brown from Minneapolis. In her short life, she and her family have faced enormous challenges, and she could easily have ended up behind, before she ever started school.

With the help of teachers at the Northside Achievement Zone, however, Star is overcoming her challenges and is on track to start kindergarten next year. Her story is one of opportunity made real.

It’s easy to say that every child deserves opportunity—regardless of race, disability, zip code or family income. And it’s easy to say that we expect excellence from all our children. But it takes work to make opportunity real. Star, and the millions more students like her, deserve all the support and opportunity this country has to offer. Our work is to make sure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise. Now is not the time to turn back the clock.

 Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

The Opportunity and Necessity for a New ESEA

Secretary Duncan has called for replacing No Child Left Behind, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), with a law that ensures opportunity for every child, expands support for schools, teachers, and principals, and preserves accountability for the progress of all students.

Secretary Duncan and National Urban League president, Marc Morial, discussed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act after a recent event at the White House. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Marc Morial (MM): It was great to have Secretary Duncan with us and for him to reaffirm his commitment, the President’s commitment to a strong Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill that holds accountability in place but also focuses on equity and equity in terms of funding. So this blueprint that’s being developed in the Congress and the administration’s commitment, Mr. Secretary, your commitment is a lot in alignment with what we at the Urban League think and believe.

Secretary Arne Duncan (AD): The Urban League has just been an amazing partner. And we need to fix this law, we need to fix this in a bipartisan way. We need a law that focuses on equity, more early childhood education, more resources for poor kids. We need a law that focuses on excellence and Mark’s been an amazing champion here. High standards for every single child, assessing progress so we actually know whether we’re making progress or not, and we have to focus on innovation as well.

MM: I’m so glad to hear you emphasize early childhood education. We both know that for poor kids, for urban kids, and for many rural kids, and even nowadays suburban kids, the opportunity to get started on their educational journey early in life… to get the basics of literacy and numeracy down pat when you’re 3, 4, 5 years old is so crucial to later success. The data is so clear but parents know that no matter who I speak to, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s a business leader, whether it’s a community leader, whether it’s a seasoned citizen or millennial. They understand, they know in their basic intuitive gut how crucial education is. That teacher, that coach, that counselor, that some adult in addition to parents and guardians and grandparents who gave them just an inspiration. I mean, I remember my 9th grade English teacher, he was tough, he was mean.

AD: What was his name?

MM: He was a priest! named Father DeRucci. He was tough! And it was honors English but guess what? I remember what he taught us. I understood how impactful that one year was to everything I was able to do later on in college and law school and life. So I really, truly think that we’re at a moment in time where the opportunity and the necessity meet. And the opportunity is a chance to build the bipartisan blueprint that embraces civil rights and equity principles but is founded on the basic foundation of the need for excellence. And the necessity is that a nation that we must compete economically in a global economy.

AD: You said it perfectly. Education has to be the great equalizer, it has to be the thing that gives every child regardless of race or ethnicity or zip code a chance in life. And if we do that we increase social mobility, we reduce poverty, we reduce income inequality, if we do this we compete successfully with our international counterparts. If we don’t do this, our kids lose, our families lose, our communities lose, and ultimately our nation loses. This is nothing political, nothing ideological here. We are fighting for kids, families, and the nation.

MM: We’ve got to view this about how to shape the best partnership for the future and leave behind old debates of exclusivity, sole responsibility. If this is the issue that’s going to define the future of this great nation, then it is everyone’s responsibility.

AD: Amen.

It’s Time for Equitable Spending of State and Local Dollars

We believe that every child should receive a strong education that prepares him or her for success in college, careers, and life.

It shouldn’t matter what a child looks like, how much his or her parent makes, or what zip code they live in; all students should be given the same opportunity and resources to achieve. However, because our country has long used local property taxes to fund schools, school funding is not spent at equal levels.


“In today’s world, we have to equip all our kids with an education that prepares them for success, regardless of what they look like, or how much their parents make, or the zip code they live in.”                                                                                                                                                         – President Obama


According to our latest data, students from low-income families in 23 states are being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding. In these states, districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families are spending fewer state and local dollars per pupil than districts that have fewer students in poverty.

Twenty states also have school districts that spend fewer state and local dollars on districts with a high percentage of minority students, than they do on districts with fewer minority students.

Our recent numbers looks specifically at spending inequalities between school districts, but we also know that in too many places, the spending problems are made worse by inequalities in spending between schools within districts. That’s why we need to close the “comparability loophole” in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – to be sure that districts start with a level playing field so federal dollars go to their intended purpose of providing additional support for students who need it most.

Educators know that low-income students need extra resources and support to succeed, and the good news is that nothing is preventing states from correcting course and ensuring that all students are prepared to succeed. In fact, states like Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and North Dakota are allocating money in a more equitable manner to help all students prepare for college and careers.

All of us have a role to play when it comes to ensuring that students from low-income families aren’t shortchanged. At the federal level, we’re ready to work with Congress to close the federal loophole that allows districts to allocate funds inequitably.

Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out his vision for a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including the idea that opportunity for every child needs to be part of our national conscience.

 

Related:

Creating a New Federal Education Law: Have you asked me?

As a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have the unique opportunity to view education through two perspectives—first, as a teacher in metro Atlanta and, second, as an employee of the U.S. Department of Education. Having the privilege to serve in this dual capacity comes with a great responsibility to question what I see every day in education and to share my truth.

With the proposed reauthorization for the nation’s education law—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—moving at light-speed in the world of policy, it left me wondering what my ESEA looks like.

ESEA was introduced in 1965, but most people know the law by the name it received in 2001 when it was updated—we call that renewal the No Child Left Behind Act. There are two proposals to create a new ESEA in Congress right now—a bill from Congressman John Kline and a discussion draft of a bill from Senator Lamar Alexander. They are similar, and they have enormous implications for teachers.

I wonder what would happen if lawmakers had the courage to ask the people in the trenches what their ESEA would look like. Novel idea, right?

What are the thoughts of those educators who, day-in and day-out, cross thresholds into buildings where impressionable young minds are nurtured and supported? How would this law impact the people who spend hours pouring care, sowing seeds of inspiration, and imparting knowledge into our future leaders?

I wonder what would happen if lawmakers asked how teachers feel about the need for higher expectations. I wonder if they know my true feelings about rigorous, college- and career-ready academic standards and what it would look like if all of us stayed the course long enough to see results before cutting ties.

I wonder what would happen if we had the ability to leave the “this too shall pass” mentality behind and focus on results for kids. I wonder if policymakers think about the investment that states and districts have made—with taxpayer dollars—to try to implement standards that will catapult our students into a realm where they can easily compete with any student, anywhere. Imagine that.

My school is one where some students are homeless, and the attendance zone includes children who come from three drug rehabilitation centers as well as transitional housing centers. I wonder what would happen if my school was faced with losing Title I funds, which come from ESEA. The House bill on Capitol Hill right now cuts funding for education.

If we lost resources, would that mean that the extra teachers—who my principal hires to reduce class sizes and provide more concentrated interventions to our most vulnerable students—would be eliminated? The students with the greatest needs should receive the most resources. This is a simple truth.

I wonder, as a teacher and a parent, should high-quality early childhood education for all children be a luxury or the norm? Countless amounts of research show that the return on investment for early learning is huge. Yet, the benefits of providing all our children with access to quality early learning is yet to be realized in this country, and I wonder if proposals in Congress do enough to expand preschool opportunity.

All of these things matter. These are the reasons that I get up at 5:30 every morning to drive to Dunwoody Springs Elementary School. These are the reasons that I applied to be a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education. These things represent my colleagues, my students, and my own two beautiful, brown baby boys.

But I am just one voice, so we need to hear from you too. Tell us what your ESEA looks like. How does it affect you, your school, your class, or your child:

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ESEA reauthorization impacts us all. I hope that policymakers and others who are central to this effort will listen to educators, and what they hope will be in their version of a new ESEA—a law that takes into account their experiences, their truths, and that expands opportunity to all children.

Patrice Dawkins-Jackson is Teaching Ambassador Fellow who continues to serve from Dunwoody Springs Elementary School in Sandy Springs, GA.

President Obama’s Weekly Address: Giving Every Child, Everywhere, a Fair Shot

In this week’s address, the President laid out his plan to ensure more children graduate from school fully prepared for college and a career.

Our elementary and secondary schools are doing better, as demonstrated by the news this past week that our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, but there is still more that can be done to ensure every child receives a quality education. That’s why the President wants to replace No Child Left Behind with a new law that addresses the overuse of standardized tests, makes a real investment in preschool, and gives every kid a fair shot at success.

He reminded everyone that when educating our kids, the future of our nation, we shouldn’t accept anything less than the best.

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High School Graduation Rate Hits New Record High

The nation’s high school graduation rate hit 81 percent in 2012-13, which is the highest rate since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating grad rates five years ago.

Students In Graduation Gowns Showing Diplomas On CampusThe new record high is a really big deal, and it’s all thanks to the hard work of our country’s teachers, principals, students and families.

In a statement, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “We can take pride as a nation in knowing that we’re seeing promising gains, including for students of color.”


“This is a vital step toward readiness for success in college and careers for every student in this country.”


Starting in 2010, states, districts and schools starting using a new, common metric called the adjusted cohort graduation rate. Before this, comparing graduation rates between states was often unreliable because of the different methods used. The new method is more accurate and helps states target support to ensure students are graduating on time and are college and career ready.

See the data here, including what the graduation rate is in your state. Check back in the coming weeks when we hope to release grad rates for minority students, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Of course, although this progress is a big milestone, we can’t slow down now. Learn how the Obama Administration is working to maintain and accelerate progress and opportunity through an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

 

Innovation in Action

Secretary Duncan at Cardozo

A student shows Secretary Duncan a program she created at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC. (Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Yesterday I had the chance to visit the amazing students at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The students, teachers and school leaders at Cardozo are making big gains through an all-hands-on-deck effort to help every student graduate prepared for college and career, and ready to achieve their dreams.

With incredible leadership from its educators, smart community partnerships, and the help of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Cardozo has seen double-digit gains in attendance; reading proficiency is up 10 percent; suspensions are down; and 54 percent fewer students failed math last year.

This year, the entire Cardozo community is working overtime to keep up the progress, and bring new solutions to persistent challenges. Cardozo’s TransSTEM Academy and Project Lead the Way are creating hands-on learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math. The Diplomas Now team is making sure that all students stay on track through 1:1 supports. And Cardozo students have designed a nationally acclaimed app to boost student attendance and academic achievement in their school.


Across the country, schools like Cardozo are leading a groundswell of innovation in education. Local educators are working hard to do things better than we have in the past—and also to share what they’re learning so that more students, educators, and communities benefit from their efforts. That’s what innovation is all about: smart investments that can expand opportunities for all students.

In Washington, there is an active debate about whether or not to continue supporting the kind of innovation that is helping educators get results for the students who need us the most. Now is not the time to turn back on investing in innovation. We need to support students, educators and their communities as they continue to drive innovation, so that all students have the opportunity to live out their dreams.

Nadya Chinoy Dabby is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Improving American Education Is Not Optional

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the choices our country faces in replacing the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), and also known as No Child Left Behind. Interested in getting ESEA updates in your inbox? Sign up for email updates


On consecutive days this week, the United States was introduced to two very different visions for its most important education law. Quite soon, Congress will choose between them, and while the legislation could move fast enough to escape wide public notice, its consequences will be profound.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) stands as a statement that a high-quality education for every single child is a national interest and a civil right. The law has boosted funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, put books in libraries and helped ensure that minorities, students with disabilities, those learning English, those living in poverty and others who have struggled would not slip through the cracks.

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What They’re Saying About Secretary Duncan’s Vision for a New Elementary and Secondary Education Act

On Monday – which marked the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – Secretary Duncan laid out a bold vision for the nation’s education law that protects all students, ensures high-quality preschool, and supports state and local innovation.

Duncan’s vision for a reauthorized ESEA delivers on the promise of equity and opportunity for every child, including minority students, students with disabilities, low-income students, and English learners. In a speech at a Washington, D.C., elementary school, he called for greater resources for schools and educators, modernizing and supporting the teaching profession, and new efforts to reduce testing where it has become excessive.

Duncan said 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 toward the promise of equity of opportunity, or a path that walks away from it. The nation can move forward, building on the progress students and educators have worked hard to achieve, or we can revert to a time of low expectations, wider achievement gaps, and uncertainty about the progress of our students—particularly the most vulnerable.

Here’s what people are saying about the need for a strong ESEA:

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Sen. Patty Murray

“I am very glad that Secretary Duncan is so focused on reforming this broken law in a way that works for our students and makes sure no child falls through the cracks, and I am looking forward to working with him, Chairman Alexander and all our colleagues on a truly bipartisan bill to get this done.”

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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.

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