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Why we need ESEA reauthorization this year

With the start of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the excitement that accompanies “March Madness” has already taken hold in the education world thanks to two prominent reform efforts—the Race to the Top and the state-led common core standards initiative. Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will reward winning states, during a time of serious state budget shortfalls, for undertaking significant K-12 education reforms designed to boost student achievement. And the common K-12 and college- and career-ready standards in math and English language arts being developed collaboratively by leadership in 48 states—without federal funds or mandates—are an important step toward ensuring that students, regardless of where they live, are educated to meet the demands of college and the workplace.

But these initiatives alone are akin to talented basketball players taking the court without a clear gameplan. In order for the investments in these reform efforts to truly pay off, Congress and the Administration must update and improve the nation’s overarching K-12 education legislation—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—to spur and support education improvement to meet the needs of all kids. That’s the main argument in Don’t Leave Accountability Behind: A Call for ESEA Reauthorization, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Commission on No Child Left Behind.

Since the last reauthorization in 2002, the nation has benefited from NCLB’s commitment to holding schools accountable for improving outcomes for all students by highlighting the achievement gaps among groups of students. Despite the law’s shortcomings, significant gains, particularly in elementary grades, have been made on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the only common yardstick for performance. Unfortunately, gains on NAEP start declining in the nation’s middle and high schools where achievement gaps remain large.

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While ARRA embodies many of the critical elements likely to be included in ESEA reauthorization, it is not a long-term, coherent vision for systemic reform that holds all states, districts, and schools accountable for the success of all students. And because it is a one-time funding boost that essentially expires this year, it is not a substitute for an ESEA reauthorization with a comprehensive approach and durable, long-term funding. Only reauthorization can address the aspects of NCLB that time, experience, and research have shown need to be significantly improved or updated.

Plus, ARRA has generated new reasons that ESEA reauthorization is necessary to support long-term reform and ensure continued accountability for student outcomes and improvement. First, the inconsistent accountability goals and measures of NCLB and ARRA send mixed messages to educators and parents and create the potential to confuse local administrators and increase state and federal bureaucracy. For example, NCLB set the goal of all students becoming proficient in math and reading by 2014 while ARRA requires states to set goals that are “ambitious and achievable,” but sets no timeline for reaching them.

Additionally, although ARRA adds multiple reporting and administrative requirements, states aren’t necessarily held accountable for the efficient, effective, and equitable use of federal education dollars. ESEA reauthorization presents an opportunity to rethink and improve monitoring strategies to minimize the burden on states and districts while maximizing accountability for results.

ARRA rightly prioritizes the lowest-performing schools, but too many other low-performing schools and students still do not receive its attention and support. Under the competitive framework of Race to the Top, not every state will receive funding and, in those states that do, only a subset of eligible schools will benefit.

Finally, NCLB’s accountability framework needs updating to recognize the state-led movement toward more rigorous standards and improved assessments while maintaining accountability for results. An ESEA reauthorization is necessary to realign the accountability system accordingly, while simultaneously ensuring that all schools—including low-performing schools—are accurately identified for improvement and interventions.

Policymakers must build on the promising efforts underway by pursuing a coherent strategy for addressing long-term needs. To that end, March Madness must be followed by a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

Bob Wise is a former governor and member of Congress from West Virginia and the current president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization that works to make every child a high school graduate, prepared for college and career.
Gary Huggins is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent bipartisan effort to identify and build support for improvements in federal education policy to ensure the Nation has effective tools to spur academic achievement and close the achievement gap.