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Since 2008, the political pendulum in Washington has swung from Democratic control, to political gridlock, to Republican control. The period of divided government featured a lot more angry words than lawmaking. Democrats and Republicans did come together, though, on at least one significant piece of legislation: the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bill that President Barack Obama dubbed a “Christmas Miracle” in December 2015.
For all their disagreements, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill could agree that the old No Child Left Behind Act was broken and that the Obama administration’s ad hoc effort to steer state education policy through conditional “waivers” from No Child Left Behind was, in the words of Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, turning the Department of Education into a “national school board.”
Thus, the Every Student Succeeds Act set out to rethink the balance between Washington and the states when it came to K-12 schooling. The new law retained the requirement that states test students regularly in reading and math in grades three through eight and again in high school. It retained the requirement that states report the results and use them to gauge school performance. It kept in place rules governing $16 billion in federal funds for low-income students.
But the law also dramatically rolled back Uncle Sam’s role in deciding which schools are performing adequately, eliminated Washington’s ability to dictate school improvement strategies, got rid of paper-driven federal rules intended to dictate which teachers are highly qualified and put clear new limits on the authority of the secretary of education. The result meant that state leaders would have new opportunities to lead.
The No Child Left Behind era featured widespread concerns about narrowing curricula, an ineffectual checklist-driven approach to school improvement, a fixation on testing and the sense that too many students and schools were treated as an afterthought because they were deemed to be doing “well enough.” The new law offers a chance to do something about those concerns, while energizing school reform and separating it from the bitter politics of the nation’s capital. Here are three of the places where there are enormous opportunities for states to lead the way.
First, states are well positioned to tackle teacher quality. Federal efforts have fallen flat: a George W. Bush-era mandate that teachers be “highly qualified” yielded mostly piles of paperwork, and Obama’s encouragement of test-based teacher evaluations bred more backlash than meaningful change. The Every Student Succeeds Act, however, offers states federal funds to establish “teacher, principal, or other school leader preparation academies,” giving them new ways to create alternatives to traditional schools of education. States could, for instance, establish several preparatory academies, charging each with particular responsibilities (e.g. preparing high-quality vocational specialists, science and math teachers or online instructors). The academies need not be linked to schools of education or even to universities—they might, for instance, be based at schools, making mentoring and apprenticeship core to their work.
Second, the law’s new direct student services provision empowers state to make it easier for schools to offer academic courses to students who lack access. After all, more than one-third of high schools don’t teach physics and half don’t offer calculus. With the 3 percent of Title I funds made available for direct student services, states can provide online offerings that would provide every student—in the smallest rural school or the most challenged urban high school—access to just about every academic offering under the sun. A handful of states, such as Minnesota, Louisiana and Florida, have a course access initiative in place, but plenty of other states have been handed a big opportunity to catch up.
Third, states have the chance to reimagine how to best aid students in struggling schools. We know that it’s possible to dramatically improve the performance of a struggling school—after all, it’s been done!—but it has proven enormously difficult to do it consistently or at scale. Neither No Child Left Behind’s interventions nor the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grant program showed an ability to produce consistent improvement. States now have an opportunity to work directly with local leaders to emphasize creativity, context and execution—rather than compliance with federal directives. States have a chance to explore how to leverage technology, employ new school models, pilot new motivational and disciplinary practices, reshape staffing and pay and much else. They should be bold, and then ruthless about studying and reporting on the results.
The prospects for statesmanship and bipartisan agreement in Washington on just about any issue seem dim. But Congress’s last major bipartisan achievement has given state leaders a golden opportunity to rise above the fray and work together to improve K-12 education for all students.
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