If you had $23 billion a year dedicated to improving low-income children’s education and addressing a wide variety of other congressionally negotiated purposes, what would you do?
This is the question Congress should be asking when its members finally sit down to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Instead, however, it’s more likely that Congress will simply tinker around the edges in hopes of “fixing” the ESEA — also known today as the No Child Left Behind Act — rather than transforming it.
The basic provisions of Title I, the ESEA’s largest program — providing more than $14 billion a year to more than 54,000 schools and 23 million students — have barely changed in almost a half-century. The program has been an untouchable symbol of the nation’s commitment to bettering the lives of schoolchildren from low-income families, despite little evidence that it has changed the odds for most of its intended recipients. And similar programs have had comparably modest effects.
This lack of transformational change occurs because federal education legislation typically is a blunt instrument that only asks schools to adhere to regulations based on imperfect policy and outdated evidence. Yet, history tells us that carefully crafted and focused legislation can do a few things: promote equality of opportunity; create infrastructure to help improve quality; stimulate state and local reform; and support good research, innovation, and the dissemination of knowledge.
The first step to realizing the promise of legislation is to clear out the underbrush of existing ESEA programs and start over from scratch. New legislation focused on only a few evidence-based strategies for improving equality and quality should replace the old programs. This would build on knowledge accumulated over the past three decades from basic research on teaching, learning, and organizational improvement, as well as lessons from high-performing countries, states, and districts. The dramatic reduction of programs would eliminate most regulations and administrative costs, thereby giving states and districts a greater opportunity to concentrate on thoughtfully implementing new programs.
While the timing of the reauthorization process remains uncertain, the new ESEA, whenever it emerges, should address three specific issues: reducing inequalities, stimulating quality, and funding new practical research and innovation.
Incentives for equitable funding
The first title, or section, of a new ESEA should offer states and districts incentives to develop equitable funding systems, provide additional funds to high-poverty secondary schools, and support preschool and kindergarten opportunities for low-income students. Each of these addresses a specific and critical need in our schools. In many states, school funding formulas favor students from well-to-do families and communities. With political will and federal incentives, this can be corrected.
The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group devoted to high school reform, cites evidence from Johns Hopkins University that finds that approximately 13 percent, or 2,000, of the nation’s public high schools account for 50 percent of our country’s dropouts. The second component of this section of ESEA would provide resources and ongoing training for the faculty and staff members in those high schools and their feeder middle schools to create the kinds of supporting, motivating, and challenging environments necessary to prepare and retain their students.
Finally, a large body of literature finds that many children from low-income families have not learned the language and behavioral skills that will prepare them for 1st grade and beyond. These students enter 1st grade with a huge gap in size of vocabulary and oral-language skills and rarely catch up. To address this, the new ESEA would include a focus on training Head Start and other preschool and kindergarten teachers to provide these fundamental skills. None of this is easy to do, but all of it is necessary if we are to reduce the degree of inequality in our nation’s schools, one of the largest in the developed world.
Encouraging what works
A second title in the ESEA would focus on supporting long-term strategies to improve the effectiveness of education for all students in states, districts, and schools. The effort would build on the powerful literature on organizational theory and international best practices that finds that a positive and supportive climate and a focus on continuous improvement of instructional practice are the secret sauce in countries, states, and districts with effective schools. Singapore; Finland; Ontario, Canada; the state of Massachusetts; Long Beach, Calif.; and Austin, Texas, are all important examples. Sustained, focused, evidence-oriented effort works.
The first initiative in this title would include authorization of funding for state and local implementation of the Common Core State Standards, including aligned assessments, curricula, and professional development. Successful implementation that was sustained over time would model a continuous-improvement strategy, which could lead to its becoming standard practice.
Additionally, this title would require states to develop accountability systems based on transparency. Politically set goals and intensive and extensive testing and arbitrary punishments designed by people in Washington alienate rather than motivate people in the field.
New state-designed systems with limited numbers of high-stakes tests would focus on making steady improvement around closing achievement gaps and increasing overall achievement and graduation rates. Use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, by states and the federal government would supplement state systems. PISA is particularly important because it comes the closest of many assessments to effectively measuring important cognitive abilities that require what psychologists call “transfer skills,” taking knowledge from one setting and applying it effectively in another.
Making room for innovation
A third and final ESEA title would establish an applied research, development, evaluation, and innovation program that would supplement current research and development in the Education Department. The new program would be focused on understanding and improving the particular strategies proposed in the first two titles. The program would also include aggressive exploration of the use of information technology to improve educational opportunities of all students in and outside of school.
The approach suggested here is not radical, but it does require members of Congress to consider the development of K-12 legislation in a new way and asks them and state and local governments to focus on critical problems in education today. Unless the Elementary and Secondary Education Act moves away from its anachronistic compliance-based and politically expansive approach, federal legislation will not be able to support states and districts truly interested in dramatically improving schools and student learning.
Marshall S. Smith is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was the dean of education and a professor at Stanford University. He has served in five presidential administrations, including serving as the chief of staff to Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first secretary of education, during the Carter administration; and as a senior adviser to current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He was the undersecretary and acting deputy U.S. secretary of education during the Clinton administration. This commentary was adapted for Education Week from his essay in the book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit (Harvard Education Press, 2011) and was first published in Education Week.