Finally, an ESEA Blueprint from the Feds

After months of anticipation, we finally have the official blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act form the Obama Administration.  The plan was teased in some news articles yesterday (Saturday) morning and was previewed during President Barack Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday morning.  The official plan, found here, was officially released on Saturday evening at 8 p.m.

At first glance, I found the plan to be whelming.  On the whole, I thought it was entirely solid and relatively thoughtful.  But as I read it (and it shows you what type of life Eduflack lives when he spends his Saturday night reading the Administration’s ESEA blueprint, but for what is was worth, I was also watching West Virginia University beat Georgetown), I was surprised by how little I was surprised with.  As we used to write about two years ago, this was clearly NCLB 2.0.  Much of the last iteration of ESEA remains intact.  Some needed improvements are being made.  And the priorities emphasized in Race to the Top are being codified, hopefully, into the new law.
The highlights?  The plan is grouped under five key principles (not to be confused with ED’s four pillars).  The principles include: college and career-ready students, great teachers and leaders, raise the bar and reward excellence, equity and opportunity, and promote innovation.  These principles break into the following tasks:
  • College and Career-Ready Students — Raising standards for all students, better assessments, a complete education (meaning a well-rounded curriculum beyond the common core standards)
  • Great Teachers and Leaders in Every School — Effective teachers and principals, our best teachers and leaders where they are needed the most, and strengthening teacher and leadership preparation and recruitment.
  • Equity and Opportunity for All Students — Rigorous and fair accountability for all students, meeting the needs of diverse learners, and greater equity.
  • Raise the Bar and Reward Excellence — Fostering a Race to the Top, supporting effective school choice, and promoting a culture of college readiness and success.
  • Promoting Innovation and Continuous Improvement — Fostering innovation and accelerating success, supporting recognizing and rewarding local innovations, and supporting student success.
See, nothing that exactly shakes the K-12 education earth.  As I read the blueprint, I am seeing much of the original intent of NCLB, mixed in with the goals of RttT, a heavy, heavy influence of common core standards, and a strong dash of the principles advocated through the Schott Foundation’s recent Opportunity to Learn (OTL) campaign (primarily the equity planks).  A little something here for everyone, but not enough that any one party is quite swooning at this point.
I’ll be honest, the timing of this release as Eduflack completely puzzled.  This blueprint was released as if ED was trying to dump it so no one noticed it.  In PR, the general rule is you never release something of importance over a weekend.  And you certainly don’t do it at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  Many of the leading reporters got an advance briefing of the blueprint (as evidenced by The Washington Post coverage here, which notes an expected 16 percent spending increase in the federal education budget), but it is clear from the early comments that this release was not maximizing the interest in the topic.  We have 16 states coming over to ED this week to plead their case for RttT, with this blueprint now stepping on that significant reform story.  Yes, Duncan is slated to speak before the Senate HELP Committee this Wednesday, but with all of Washington focused on healthcare reform, this blueprint is likely to go undernoticed in the coming days and weeks.
But from the look and feel of the blueprint, it is clear that neither Capitol Hill nor the media is in the intended target here.  Since the beginning of the calendar year, we have been hearing how Assistant ED Secretary Carmel Martin was preparing an ESEA blueprint for legislators on the Hill.  But this document, from its design to its word choices to its bulleted focus of key concepts, is designed to deliver talking points and marching orders to the education blob.  This “blueprint” is designed to move the discussion at member organizations, forums about town, and cocktail parties and gab sessions.  In that way, it isn’t so much a blueprint as it is framing document for debate.
A few things are crystal clear.  One, EdSec Arne Duncan is going all in when it comes to common core standards.  The execution of this blueprint requires the adoption of the proposed standards across the country.  Anything short of 80 percent adoption within the year is going to severely hamstring much of what is proposed in this plan.
Two, those who were expecting accountability (and AYP) to be weakened are going to be severely disappointed.  Yes, we no longer use the term AYP.  But accountability remains alive and well in this document.  Localities are not being granted the flexibility many had hoped they may receive.  And while we are changing some of the rubrics (again, aligning them with those core standards) it is clear that continued improvement of student achievement remains the name of the game.  Even more so when it now appears that states, districts, schools, and teachers will be judged by how good a job they do getting more kids to graduate from high school.
Three, the teachers unions have been put on notice.  Obama’s remarks last week about the situation in Rhode Island were quite an intentional statement against the teaching status quo.  This blueprint strengthens the call for closing low-performing schools, addressing teachers who aren’t making the cut, and holding school districts, administrators, and teachers far more accountable for student achievement than even NCLB did.
Four, rural education is not going to be happy.  After seeking to improve its lot under NCLB, rural ed is almost an afterthought in this blueprint, inserted in a list of specialty audiences AFTER Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education interests.  Hardly the sort of focus that Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi (WY) and House Education Committee Ranking Member John Kline (MN) are hoping to see.  And Eduflack would quibble with what is labeled as “A New Approach,” as many of these bullet items do indeed read like the rhetoric surrounding NCLB intentions back in 2001 and 2002.  But looking to bullet out the takeaways (and distinguish between new and continued approaches) is always useful to those who will be asked to opine on this blueprint now and in the future.
And what’s missing?  No real discussion of anticipated plans of eliminating the current Title II (focused on teachers) and replacing it with new language aligned with the last year’s activities (though I suspect that’s what the effective teachers section is intended to address).  No real emphasis on plans to eliminate traditional, guaranteed block grants and replace them with competitive grant programs a la RttT and i3, particularly at the school district level.  And most importantly, no crosswalk of dollars with priorities.  WaPo may be pointing to a major spending increase under the reauthorization, but it simply isn’t part of the plan that has
been shared with the at large chattering class.  We’re being asked to buy into big ideas, with specific dollars, programs, and line items available on a need-to-know basis at a later date.
So what now?  From early reports, AASA (which was a strong opponent to NCL seems happy.  Teachers unions are upset.  And most simply didn’t realize this was dropped late last night (and announced proudly on Facebook for those who are Fans of the US Department of Education).  While this gives both the House and Senate committees additional information to consider as they hold their ESEA hearings, it is clear that Chairman George Miller (CA) is moving forward with his own plans, and this blueprint may very well be tossed onto the pile with other recommendations coming in to Miller from across the sector.  
Timing?  Eduflack loves those cock-eyed optimists who are still talking about reauthorization by this summer.  It ain’t happening.  If the intent is to re-bucket ESEA around this proposed blueprint, we are looking at spring 2011 at the earliest, assuming we don’t have significant shifts in congressional makeup this November.  But at least it gives us more to talk about than just RttT!

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