Voice from the Field
We Can’t Wait Another Year for a New ESEA
Mary Broderick, 2011-2012 President, National School Boards Association (NSBA), and the former chair of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education — Friday, April 13, 2012
For nearly five years, school leaders around the country have urged Congress to make dramatic changes to the No Child Left Behind law. We’re now reaching a critical point where too many schools are being unfairly penalized, community support is undermined, and we’re forced to sacrifice vital subjects that engage students to focus on state tests.
NCLB—the ten-year-old version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—marked nearly half of all public schools as “failing” last year, and 100% will be “failing” by 2014. This absurd statistic demonstrates that the law isn’t working the way it was intended. However, because Congress hasn’t seized the initiative to make major changes, school districts are operating in limbo between a flawed law and an unsure future in the direction of federal policy. For our public schools to move forward and for our children to be competitive, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) is pushing Congress to pass a new law this year. NSBA represents the nation’s 13,800 school boards, but there’re thousands of administrators, teachers, and other school staff members who also see the law’s problems firsthand.
NCLB’s mandate of 100% proficiency in all subgroups by 2014 was important in its emphasis on high expectations for all students. Yet school board members know there’re too many factors and variances to rely on once-a-year state tests as accurate indicators of student learning. The unintended consequences of NCLB include an emphasis on teaching to the test and a watering-down of state standards. Thousands of schools are unfairly targeted by the law’s punitive, mandated measures for “improvements” that haven’t borne the intended results. The current law takes us away from where we should be focused: on generating thinking, creative, problem-solving students prepared to tackle unknown challenges. Our schools need to be preparing students with 21st century skills to enter college or the workforce. Many schools despite being labeled “failing” are doing these jobs quite well.
For instance, I recently read about the Oyster River Middle School in New Hampshire, a school where an engaged teaching force brought out creativity and critical thinking skills in its students by allowing them to explore genres of books in English classes and hands-on science class assignments, such as building an underwater robotic vessel. According to The New York Times, Oyster’s students always scored well on state tests and went on to score well above the national average on their SAT tests. But since a handful of special education students didn’t meet the NCLB mandates for adequate yearly progress, the entire school was deemed failing in 2011. Now, according to the Times, teachers and administrators have been forced to create an improvement plan that requires them to focus more on textbooks and teaching test preparation strategies. This includes urging their students to “fill the box,” which means to write enough copy (never mind the quality of the writing) to fill the entire space allotted for an essay question in hopes of a better score, according to the Times. The Times also reported that 90% of schools in New Hampshire may be identified as failing this year.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan knows this law isn’t working, and his agency has designed a waiver program that allows states to apply to maneuver around some of the most problematic requirements. But this is only a temporary Band-Aid that won’t affect all schools. Some states have determined that the time, resources, and complications of the waiver application aren’t worth the effort, and their school districts will be dealing with the full force of NCLB for at least this year.
Congress has made progress toward a comprehensive reauthorization: Bills that have passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee aren’t perfect but still would be a vast improvement over existing law. If Congress is incapable of doing this right, the least they must do is stop the damage.
Since the final legislation will be written in conference committee, NSBA is urging the House and Senate to pass this bill as soon as possible, before the election season takes over the calendar.
If Congress continues to delay reauthorization, some local school districts will lose valuable staff time, funding, and energy as they move forward with the requirements of their state’s waiver program, given that a new law is likely to render some requirements unnecessary or require school districts to move in a different direction. And delaying the reauthorization another year or more also means states that don’t apply or don’t receive waivers will continue to face the increasing full burden of the current law’s flawed provisions.
To truly improve student learning, build effective and stable policies and programs, and prepare our younger generation for a global economy and a very different world, it’s time to reauthorize ESEA.
Mary Broderick (email@example.com) is the 2011-2012 President of NSBA and the former chair of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education.