Why the new ESEA won’t change US education


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I haven’t been following the ESEA revisions closely as they’ve meandered their way through the Senate and the House, but my general impression is that this new bill will not dramatically transform public education in the United States (surprise!).

My understanding is that revisions as they currently stand are looking to:

The unfortunate fact is that perennial political debates between federal and state rights assumes precedence over the practical exigencies of public education. Transforming an entire nation’s education system requires strong federal guidance and authority.  The most current iterations of ESEA suggests that federal authority will be yet further curtailed.

This isn’t to say that NCLB was perfect. But the federal government clearly established higher standards and accountability to those standards for all students. This was critical for students that had been historically denied access to a quality education, such as students with disabilities. Yet NCLB was admittedly inflexible and created the unintended consequence of a single-minded focus on superficial ELA and math tests that were largely disconnected from any viable curriculum.

As problematic as the testing regime has been, however, tests could serve a more proactive instructional purpose if they were better designed to acknowledge the importance of content knowledge in literacy, if they were better able to adapt to student ability, and if they incorporated community feedback in the selection of the texts they assessed*. Then tests could actually provide direction on curriculum and instructional decisions. I’ve made this argument before, and so has David Steiner, former education commissioner of NY State, just so you know I’m not crazy.

I appreciate that senators are pushing for the creation of “an evidence-based innovation fund,” but I fear that such funds most likely won’t be put towards building infrastructure, despite a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of environment on behavior and learning.

I also greatly doubt that ESEA will be looking to fund or create accountability for any efforts at integration of schools or communities based on socio-economic status, despite evidence demonstrating its impact on reducing the opportunity gap.

I applaud our public representatives for working together across the aisle to negotiate these revisions of NCLB. But I am afraid that their efforts will do little to better outcomes for the majority of our students. Our nation needs to get real about increasing federal authority over curriculum, funding, and regulating school choice.

Let me be clear that I don’t mean that I’m advocating for one-size-fits-all. I believe states and districts require greater flexibility and choice in adapting funding and policies to their students’ needs. But without strong guidance and accountability from the federal government, states will be highly unlikely to do the heavy moral and financial lifting of pushing for more integrated schools and neighborhoods, designing or adopting tests that are adaptive yet more rigorous and content-rich, creating new school buildings that increase access to natural light and greenery, or pushing for increased access to a quality school and program and teacher for traditionally ignored populations.

*Update: I should add that tests should further be tied to rigorous, common standards.

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