Swingin’ for the ESEA Fences

In yesterday’s initial analysis of the US Department of Education’s ESEA reauthorization blueprint, I noted I was “whelmed” by the plan as a whole.  (And for the record, I am a strong proponent of using the word whelmed.  If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I certainly can be whelmed.  It’s not like having to choose between North and South Dakota.)  Since then, I’ve received a number of questions as to why, particularly since so many people seem to see this as a strong step forward in improving No Child Left Behind.

My biggest issue with the blueprint is there is no big, stinkin’, knock-you-off your-seat big idea offered.  When we were introduced to the wonderful world of NCLB a little over nine years ago (can we all believe it has been that long?), we were immediately embraced by some huge ideas that almost immediately changed the education policy landscape.  Before the ink was even dry on the legislative drafts, we all knew what Annual Yearly Progress was (and the potential dangers it offered).  The term “scientifically based research” was quickly added to the vocabulary of wonk and practitioner alike.  And Reading First was a new program where the Administration was putting their proverbial money where their mouths were.  These were all but twinkles in Sandy’s, Margaret’s BethAnn’s, and Reid’s eyes before the reauthorization process began.

But this time around, we have no great new big idea YET.  Part of the problem is that the Duncan regime has been hard at work on ed policy for the past 14 or 15 months, moving ideas well before they moved this blueprint for ESEA reauthorization.  So what were once big ideas — Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, common core standards — are now ingrained as part of the ed reform status quo these days.  We are looking to codify that which we have debated for more than a year now.  We expected all of that in this blueprint, thus it is hardly something designed to knock us off our barstools.

The teacher quality component, which could have provided some real fodder for a sock-knocking idea, seems to be a finetuning and improving over NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher effort, former EdSec Margaret Spellings’ Teacher Incentive Fund, and the teacher requirements included in RttT.  Even in addressing the persistent problem with low-performing schools, this blueprint simply evolves from NCLB’s two-tiered evaluation with a new three-tiered system, as reported here by Greg Toppo.  And while that extra tier may really help at addressing those 5,000 lowest-performing schools, it hardly wins hearts and minds.

To be fair, Eduflack realizes you don’t always need some new shiny toy or a jaw-dropping new idea to move forward solid legislation.  In fact, in a perfect world, I would hope we’d never need such gimmicks.  But with short attention spans and even shorter understanding curves, one often needs that hook, that big idea, to help gain attention and start winning over the necessary converts.  When ESEA was reauthorized back in 2001 (and signed into law in early 2002), we not only gave it a new name (NCLB ), but we offered some new ideas and programs to show this was not your father’s version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Working from the existing blueprint, Eduflack sees a few potentials for both some smallball ideas as well as some bases-clearing longballs.  What am I thinking?

* Immediately include strong pieces of congressional legislation in the plan.  I’m thinking things like U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s (WA) LEARN Act focused on K-12 reading instruction, Chairman George Miller’s (CA) plan for high school improvement, or even the recent legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (RI) and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (CO) establishing a federal definition for teacher professional development.

* Get personal on teacher quality.  Teacher quality is now clearly a central point of the debate, with even Obama calling out the teacher education sector for not living up to expectations.  So let’s get personal here.  As part of your data system work, ensure that we are able to track teachers (both leaders and laggards) back to their originating program, be it a college of education or an alt cert program.  Then be prepared to name names when it comes to those institutions that are not delivering the long-term results sought under the new law. 

* Invest in parents.  The day after Obama was elected, Eduflack opined that the EdSec should establish a family engagement office (at the assistant secretary level) so that the Administration could focus on the role of families in school improvement.  To date, the Administration has talked a good game.  But with the pending elimination of Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC) grants, there is a gaping hole for engaging families.  NCLB tried to do this, with mixed results.  Building off of the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 and recent activities around healthcare reform, one can build a strong, effective multi-touch effort to really involve parents and families in school turnaround and improvement efforts.

* Kill the bubble sheet.  Under ESEA reauthorization, this administration has the power to do away with the dreaded “bubble sheet test.”  Proudly proclaim that new assessments coming out of common core standards will be required to be smart computer-based exams.  Bring testing into the 21st century while allowing for a more-comprehensive assessment than can be captured by guessing which one of five bubbles may be the most correct.

* Require online learning.  I applaud the commitment to improving high schools and working to boost graduation rates.  Let’s add a little 21st century relevancy here.  Learning from states like Florida and Alabama, let’s require that, by 2020, every student in the United States must take at least one virtual course in order to graduate from high school.  Not only does it introduce more relevant coursework into the classroom, it clearly promotes that learning happens beyond what happens between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. behind the traditional schoolhouse doors.

Those are just five ideas to get the discussion started.  The legislative pieces could be endorsed by EdSec Duncan during Wednesday’s hearings.  Teacher quality could be done this summer when NCATE’s anticipated report is released.  A Family Engagement Office could be started immediately.  And killing the bubble sheet and folding virtual education into state requirements can be done now as stimulus money is used to invest in a range of ed reform ideas.  Regardless, we should be taking this opportunity to continue to move forward big, bold thoughts.  Real ed improvement can’t be limited by those ideas moved during year one.  Not to mix my sports metaphors, but this game goes at least four quarters.  We need to maximize all opportunities. 

16 thoughts on “Swingin’ for the ESEA Fences

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