Reform should create a student-centered education

Education reform is a national priority and an economic necessity. Under our federalist system, each level of government plays a role in providing a quality education. In return for federal dollars, the President and U.S. Congress should set ambitious goals for students and schools. Governors, state education chiefs and state legislatures should hold schools accountable for achieving those high expectations. Mayors, school boards and superintendents should manage their fiscal and human capital resources effectively to ensure students achieve these high expectations.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was landmark legislation that, for the first time in our history, organized the country around being accountable for the education of every child. Reauthorization provides an opportunity to improve this important law, renew our commitment to America’s children and transform education for the 21st century without rolling back our expectations for students and the adults who educate them.

As education leaders in five states, we share a common approach to improving the federal law.
First, academic standards – what students are expected to learn in each grade – should be rigorous and relevant to postsecondary college, career and life opportunities. Since NCLB was enacted a decade ago, states have made significant progress in raising academic standards. The overwhelming majority of states have adopted the Common Core State Standards in language arts and math that are designed to be rigorous, challenging and instrumental in putting our students on a level playing field with the world. Many states now require more rigorous math and science courses to earn a high school diploma.

Implementing more rigorous academic standards addresses a legitimate criticism of NCLB, namely that states with low standards could earn passing grades from the U.S. Department of Education while states with more rigorous standards were more likely to fail. High standards must be the norm for all students in every state.

Second, accountability is an important engine of reform. Every state must have a robust and fair accountability system that identifies needs, measures progress, challenges mediocrity, rewards achievement, provides support, reverses failure and reflects the range of quality in schools. The federal framework for accountability must encourage states to have all of these elements, and maintain annual testing of student achievement, because sustained progress is central to holding schools accountable for learning.

The federal accountability framework must ensure that states hold all students and all schools to high expectations. Lowering academic standards or expectations based on ethnicity or family income is simply wrong. We must continue to challenge and defeat the soft bigotry of low expectations. Additionally, we believe states should evaluate schools with meaningful and clear categories of academic performance and progress, such as grading schools A, B, C, D or F, as is done in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana. A school that is ranked in the bottom 10 percent should not be treated the same as a school in the top 15 percent - a clear difference exists between the two.

Third, the federal law should incentivize states to move forward with more robust accountability measures by providing the most reform-minded states with the flexibility to move beyond the federal framework if they have a stronger and bolder accountability system that expects substantial progress from every school and has the power to intervene aggressively when that bar is not met. States demonstrating high achievement, great gains in student learning from year to year, a high graduation rate and a narrowing of the achievement gaps should also earn the freedom to target federal funding to build on their success. Likewise, these innovative states should be given flexibility and the autonomy to make dramatic systemic changes to turn around consistently low-performing schools.

In fact, many states are extending accountability from the school level to the classroom level. More and more states are evaluating, developing, compensating and retaining teachers and leaders based on student success – not years in service. Federal law should reward states that take these bold steps toward improving the quality of teaching for all students.

Fourth, federal funding should be tied to student success. When states and school districts fail to turnaround low-performing schools, the federal government should empower parents to choose another option for their child. When the money follows the students, states and school districts will have a strong incentive to take bold and immediate steps to reverse failure.

Finally, the goal of all reforms should be to create a student-centered education. Today, America can offer an unprecedented array of choices to customize education to ensure each and every child achieves their full potential for learning. Choices can come in many forms, including charter and magnet schools, inter- and intra-district enrollment, dual or early college enrollment, vouchers and tax credit scholarships for private schools and virtual schools. In an age where choices dominate every aspect of our lives, the time has come for greater choices in education.

No Child Left Behind was historic for both its substance and the manner in which it was passed. President George W. Bush, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and current Speaker John Boehner shepherded the legislation to a bipartisan majority in both chambers. Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind has the same potential to bridge the partisan divide. As the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” warned, “History is not kind to idlers.” We believe leaders from both sides of the aisle will find much common ground when we focus on our students. 

Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders that share a zeal for education reform. The chiefs include Paul Pastorek, Louisiana state superintendent of Education and chair of the coalition, Eric Smith, Florida commissioner of Education and vice-chair of the coalition, Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent of Public Instruction, Deborah Gist, Rhode Island commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education and Gerard Robinson, Virginia secretary of Education. Together, they provide a strong voice for bold reform on the federal, state and local level.