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More than 11 years ago, our government enacted the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that increased focus on standards and assessments and required each state to set annual targets for student performance. This law has since helped the country’s education system by serving a critical purpose in raising awareness, setting high expectations for all and driving states to meet those expectations for every student. However, our ability to best serve all students has evolved over the past decade. As a result, the law is now outdated and is no longer assisting states on the way to improving their systems.
Recognizing this issue, the U.S. Department of Education approved the proposals of 34 states and the District of Columbia to adopt new accountability systems that are replacing the antiquated provisions of NCLB. On Thursday, states will testify about these changes at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing “No Child Left Behind: Early Lessons From State Flexibility Waivers.” While these waivers have provided the flexibility states need to advance changes focused on delivering real accountability to all students and teachers, we need Congress to reauthorize an improved ESEA based on the strong state waiver plans.
There is no argument that our shared ultimate goal should continue to be academic excellence for all students, but the way each state supports its schools on the way to excellence may vary. States have shown significant innovative leadership with approaches to waivers, raising the bar above the limitations of NCLB. Kentucky, for example, which is testifying at Thursday’s hearing, has adopted a new model linking assessments that allows determinations of whether students are on track for college and career readiness beginning in third grade, taking into account both achievement and growth, among other considerations. Furthermore, Kentucky has moved beyond a focus on reading and mathematics to incorporate additional measures indicating college and career readiness, including science, social studies and writing. Now, the schools in Kentucky are being judged on a more complete set of measures.
Motivated by a strong sense of urgency to accelerate all students’ progress, New York, which also is testifying at the hearing, has anchored its standards, accountability and educator evaluation systems in college and career-readiness, similar to Kentucky, to reach this goal. New York’s waiver provides an opportunity to align federal funds and requirements with the work New York had already started in the state allowing for a single system that holds schools and districts to a higher standard and provides a tiered system of supports and interventions based on needs. In New York, the state is now clearer about its goals, and when schools are not meeting the goals, the state is intervening.
States across the country, like New York and Kentucky, are committed to changes, and the goals they have set forth in their ESEA flexibility requests are critical steps on the road to preparing all students for success. They recognize the achievement gaps and are deeply committed to solving these problems by demonstrating state leadership in education changes. State education chiefs believe that federal law needs to set high goals while allowing states the flexibility to determine how best to reach those goals.
To be clear, while waivers have provided an opportunity for states to advance needed changes to improve education for all children, they are not a permanent solution. States are not interested in backing away from accountability; however, it is critical that they have the opportunity to build on the work they have already started under their approved waivers or efforts and continue to develop structures that will drive their schools and districts to achieve at higher levels. States, with their waivers, have already advanced their systems beyond NCLB and now need a federal law that builds on state leadership and provides the stability to fully realize the potential of their efforts.
While much progress has been made since 2002 when NCLB was signed into law, too many achievement gaps still persist — as a nation, we are leaving too many children behind. The Department of Education’s approval of these states’ new accountability systems that move beyond those under NCLB is a significant step, but we continue to ask Congress to reauthorize ESEA with state models as the basis for the work. Only an updated and improved federal law will provide all states with a clear, long-term solution for meaningful education changes and accountability.
Chris Minnich is the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the state superintendents of education.