Our guest blogger is Jeremy Ayers, senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Today Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) unveiled his long overdue plan, reportedly negotiated with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), to revise the No Child Left Behind Act. In comments to press, Harkin explained, “we are moving into a partnership role with the states.” This bill is strong, he contends, because it “focuses on teaching and learning, not testing and sanctioning.”
The draft released today does take some important steps forward in making the law better, similar to proposals the Center for American Progress outlined earlier this year. But it takes one big step backward in terms of accountability, something Harkin seemed to acknowledge. The plan is certainly better than highly partisan, unworkable Republican proposals in the Senate and House, but it needs some significant improvements before it becomes law.
The Senate plan does a couple of things that parents and the public should welcome:
– Building the Talent: The Senate plan would ensure that teachers and principals get better feedback on how well they help students learn, and then make sure that information is used to improve their skills. Measures would be put in place to make sure every student gets an effective teacher, especially those least likely to have them — low-income students and students of color.
– Maximizing the Money: Many people think schools with poor students get more resources than other schools. But they often get less, which is partly due to a loophole in federal education law that papers over inequity. The Senate plan would close the loophole and require school districts to ensure that poorer schools get extra resources.
– Fixing the Problems: The Senate plan would focus on turning around struggling schools. It would provide resources for increasing student learning time and for addressing the non-academic needs of low-income students, such as medical or health services. The Senate plan would target specific interventions to the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools, and it would require locally-devised efforts in another 5 percent of schools with large gaps between high- and low-achieving student groups.
However, the bill misses the mark by a wide margin in terms of accountability. The bill would not require states to set measurable, quantifiable goals for making progress with students. It would instead merely ask them to make “continuous improvement.” And there appear to be no consequences if states fail to hit even that broad target. That takes away all positive pressure to ensure states and districts effectively educate students, particularly low-income, minority, and disabled students.
To be sure, Congress cannot make schools better simply by telling them to get better. But absent goals and positive pressure to improve, some states will set the bar low, just as they did in the 1990s when federal law similarly asked for “continuous improvement.” Then, one state claimed making progress meant “not sliding backward,” while another said it would aim to decrease the number of students who scored at the bottom of the scale. That sounds more like a race-to-not-be-at-the-bottom than a race to the top.
Accountability isn’t the answer to all education problems. But neither is flexibility. Both work in tandem, and Congress should find a better, smarter balance between the two as it moves forward in the reauthorization process.