Congress must not reverse course on education

This week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate may vote on the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). First passed in 1965, it is now commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002. The next chapter in the story of American education is about to be written. We may represent the polar ends of the education system — a former chairman of the House Education Committee and a former classroom teacher — but we have a shared belief that now is the opportunity to get it right.

In 1965, the federal government got involved because the political pressures at all levels of education worked against poor and minority children. Unfortunately, political pressures in education still work against poor and minority children — in terms of access to rigorous curriculum, effective teachers, funding, fair discipline policies, college and wrap-around services. Teachers know acutely how all of the current systems and political pressures work most profoundly against the students for whom the ESEA was meant in the first place. 

{mosads}Until those pressures no longer work against students, the federal law must ask the simple question of whether all students, including low-income children, children of color, English learners and students with disabilities, are learning at grade level and, if not, ensure that something is being done about it. For all of its flaws, this is an element of the law that NCLB did get right. It will be devastating for children, particularly low-income students and students of color, if we are to reverse course on the basics of accountability. 

Unfortunately, going backward is what the current ESEA bills pending in Congress would do. Simply put, no longer would states and districts be required to take action when students aren’t learning at grade level. Students and their families will not be assured that action will be taken on their behalf when student achievement information shows schools to be chronically low-performing, or when growing achievement gaps further disadvantage poor students and students of color.

This is not to say the ESEA couldn’t be improved — many aspects of the law are dated. But Congress shouldn’t abandon the parts of the law, namely accountability, that have transformed education for so many students. Now is not the time to revert to a time place where the achievement of poor and minority children and students with disabilities were masked.

By all indicators, student achievement is improving under current law. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, shows consistent growth for poor and minority children, and faster growth than at any other time since 1980. Graduation rates are at an all-time high for all students, including for black and Hispanic students. Those gains came not just because we started measuring achievement and graduation rates in real and consistent ways. We made gains as a nation because we demanded that something be done about the information and because, with federal leadership, the goals of improving education for all students became our collective goal. 

Despite these gains and increased attention on the quality of education for historically underserved populations, part of the story of American education in 2015 became a story of people everywhere giving up and opting out. The new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards — PARCC and Smarter Balanced — became a focused, national target, with thousands of kids from New York to Oregon opting out of these standardized tests with the support of many parents and sometimes encouragement of teachers.

There is no doubt that testing is not popular. However, having assessments that measure whether students are on grade level and on track to graduate prepared for college or career forces us as schools, communities and a nation to confront and ultimately narrow the achievement gap. And if we are to rise as a nation educationally, this challenge must be one we take on collectively. No one’s school will improve without apples to apples information on how students are doing.

Congress and all of us can do better than “not our problem” for our nation’s students. They deserve more than Congress doing what is easy, such as rolling back accountability for student achievement. Doing what is easy is rarely the same thing as doing what is right.

The students struggling in schools today are our children, in our neighborhoods, in our communities. Students today are our next generation of teachers, mayors, police, firefighters, doctors, congressmen, parents and, somewhere in there, a president.

We owe it to every child in America to uphold the ESEA as a civil rights law, to demand better for them and to keep them at the center of each classroom, conversation in a school, and debate and vote in Congress. 

Miller served in the House from 1975 through 2014 and served as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. Coggins is founder and CEO of Teach Plus, a Boston-based nonprofit. 


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