Duncan Eyes K-12 Education Reauthorization

You can expect to see plenty of gridlock from the 112th Congress but traditionally it hasn’t been the case that divided government gets nothing done (see Mayhew, Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations, 1946-2002, Second Edition and Fiorina, Divided Government) though It hink the jury’s still out on whether that result holds up in a more polarized age. If it does hold up, my guess is that the prospects for action are best on two fronts—the long-stalled reauthorization of the main federal transportation finance law (SAFETEA-LU) and the long-stalled reauthorization of the main federal K-12 education law (ESEA/NCLB).

Today in the Washington Post, education secretary Arne Duncan pitches his ideas for tweaking the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

That is why many people across the political spectrum support the work of 44 states to replace multiple choice “bubble” tests with a new test that helps inform and improve instruction by accurately measuring what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking abilities.

NCLB’s accountability provisions also prompted many states to lower standards, but governors and legislators from both parties in all but a handful of states have rectified the problem by voluntarily adopting higher college and career-ready standards set by state education officials.

Finally, almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers. More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.

Insofar as we’re thinking about the federal level, to me it seems like the most important thing is developing better tests. Almost any approach to assessing the performance of a school or a school system is going to be on some level based on test scores, so there’s always a risk of a “garbage in, garbage out” phenomenon where bad tests lead to bad decisionmaking. And since you’d like to see results comparable across states this is something where the federal role is crucial.