The last few years have been a whirlwind of momentum to improve schools including record investments from the Department of Education and public awareness through movies like Waiting for “Superman.” Better still, we are seeing some progress with graduation rates slowly rising. Some states like Tennessee have seen double digit increases. For individuals like myself who have spent the better part of the last four decades working to improve outcomes for children and youth, it’s hard to remember a time where the opportunity for real change was so close.

This is why it’s imperative Congress not delay the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) any longer.  While the federal government has invested in education, it has been almost a decade since ESEA’s last reauthorization – the longest period ever between rewrites of this legislation, one of the most essential pieces of federal education policy. During the time since the law expired in 2007, more than four million students have dropped out of high school.

ESEA in its current form is imperfect, but with some modifications, it has the potential to make a difference in the dropout and economic crises facing the country.

First, and most importantly, we must emphasize the “secondary” in ESEA.  High schools are an afterthought in federal education policy with only 10 percent of Title I dollars currently going to secondary schools, even though they educate a quarter of low income students. ESEA must be reauthorized to ensure high schools receive an equitable share of federal education appropriations.

Focus where the problem is the greatest.

Roughly 1,600 of the nation’s 18,000 high schools account for half of the nation’s dropouts. A physician would never tend to a scratch before administering CPR on a dying patient. We must treat our failing schools like dying patients and tend to them and their communities first. One of the best ways to facilitate this work is with data. Data is the canary in the coalmine for struggling schools and students. By ensuring ESEA supports data driven comprehensive school reform, we’ll have the ability to know where the problem is greatest, which students face the most challenges, and where our resources would be best targeted.

Make high schools accountable and diplomas meaningful.  

High schools must be held accountable for graduating their students on time. It seems obvious, but graduation rates are not currently part of accountability measures. ESEA reauthorization must change that.

Similarly, we have to make sure the diploma our students receive translates in a global economy. Remedial education — courses for college students who didn’t master basic English, math and science in high school — cost the U.S. an estimated $5.6 billion in direct costs and lifetime earnings in 2007-08. ESEA reauthorization must help our schools connect classrooms with 21st century careers and implement technology to support it. Most students, even in the most impoverished neighborhoods, have better technology in their cell phones than in their schools.

Reducing the dropout rate and improving schools is as much an economic problem as an educational or moral one. We all pay an enormous price when young people are not prepared for the future. While Congress continues to debate budget cuts and deficits, I hope we can all agree that strategic investments in education through the reauthorization of ESEA can help get us there faster. Unlike ESEA, we can never allow the potential of our young people to expire.

Marguerite Kondracke is president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance and co-founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions. She is a former staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families and was State Commissioner of Human Services in Tennessee from 1984-1986.