Congress Delays Debating ‘No Child Left Behind,’ Again

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The nation’s education law is broken. While much progress has been made in pushing Congress to repair the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), legislators are once again dragging their feet by postponing a floor debate in the Senate that would address opportunity gaps for students, over-testing, and a one-size-fits all punitive culture that is a hallmark of the prior reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

“Our students have already waited 13-plus years,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association (NEA). “We can’t let Congress continue to push off students, and we can’t wait for the next school year to pass a bill that truly supports kids and empowers educators.”

After years of nationwide protests by educators, parents, students, and community groups, progress was made April 16 when members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) unanimously approved a bipartisan redraft of NCLB dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.

While Congress now has the opportunity to amend and advance the bill – they have put off the debate until further notice. Eskelsen García is asking educators, parents, and community leaders to tell Congress to take the next step in the legislative process without delay.

“All students need equal opportunity and time to learn is now, not later,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association (NEA). “As we move forward, we will continue to urge Congress to go even further in helping each and every student, particularly those living in poverty and with the greatest educational needs.”

NEA seeks to build on the progress made by the HELP committee with an “opportunity dashboard” at the center of a new accountability system. This system would not only help ensure that students are college-and career-ready, but also include indicators of school quality and student success, such as graduation rates. It would also attest to students’ access to resources and supports like advanced coursework, fully qualified teachers, specialized instructional personnel, high-quality early education programs, and arts and athletic programs.

The bill scales back overly prescriptive federal interventions while providing states much more flexibility in developing their own accountability systems. In a nutshell, it moves decision-making to the people who know the names of the students they educate while maintaining supports that ensure zip codes do not determine the quality of education students receive.

On the testing front, the rewrite moves in a positive direction. To wit:

  • Requires the use of multiple measures of student success in elementary, middle, and high school.
  • Creates a pilot program for state-designed assessments driven by teaching and learning, not accountability alone, and allows all states that meet the criteria to anticipate in the pilot program.
  • Incorporates the SMART Act to provide funding for states to audit and streamline assessment systems, eliminate unnecessary assessments, and improve the use of assessments.
  • Maintains the right of parents and guardians to opt their children out of statewide academic assessments where allowed by state and local policies.

Studies show that students learn writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills through reading, math, history, and science lessons. For example, no bubble test can measure a student’s curiosity.

Administering poorly designed standardized tests forces students to memorize facts that can be answered on fill-in-the-bubble tests. Just as bad, the onslaught of mandated tests pressure highly trained and dedicated teachers to spend weeks of valuable classroom time teaching to the test instead of to the student.

“We want to see a bill that goes a long way to empower educators as trusted professionals to make classroom and school decisions to ensure student success,” says Eskelsen García. “We will continue to engage in conversations with all stakeholders to make sure that Congress gets ESEA right this time.”

Good education inspires students’ natural curiosity, imagination, and love of learning. Schools that nurture these values today are growing tomorrow’s engineers, artists, and leaders.

When the bill reaches the Senate floor presumably in the coming months, a key part of the debate will revolve around how the Senate bill will ensure that all students have the opportunity, resources and support they need to succeed.

The committee version of the bill mandates that states include at least one indicator of student or school supports – such as access to advanced coursework, access to school counselors or nurses, and access to fine arts and regular physical education -within their accountability system to help draw attention to achievement gaps.

The NEA opportunity dashboard encourages a more robust accountability system to help ensure that students are better prepared for college and other career choices. The opportunity dashboard also calls for indicators showing how students are reaching their full potential at school by having access to resources like advanced courses, qualified teachers, early education, and other programs.

NCLB also links its federal dollars to penalties for schools that cannot meet a series of one-size-fits-all standards. One of the most important of those standards is called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Under NCLB, students must be tested once a year in reading and mathematics. Students are expected to score at the “proficient” level or above on state-administered tests and make Adequate Yearly Progress toward that goal.

While some national and state community organizations and congressional caucuses support AYP to different extents, NEA opposes this provision where schools with students that do not meet AYP are penalized.

“We are hopeful that further improvements will be made to address equal educational opportunities for students,” says Mary Kusler, NEA Director of Government Relations. “Our goal remains a final ESEA reauthorization that truly promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students.”

After a Senate floor debate, the full Senate will vote on the bill. To pass, it will require 60 affirmative votes.

In news accounts, committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is quoted as saying the consensus came down to “continue [NCLB’s] important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.”

The ranking committee member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), said the vote was “another positive step toward fixing the badly broken No Child Left Behind law and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn, no matter where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make.”

In 2001, Congress passed NCLB, ushering in some of the most drastic and far-reaching changes to public schools in a generation. NCLB became known for instituting “test and punish” accountability and for perpetuating a system that delivers unequal educational opportunities to America’s students.

“We’re looking at Congress to do more than just get rid of the bad stuff that has hurt kids,” explains Eskelsen García. “We’re looking for concrete steps that remedy opportunity gaps for students and fix the broken test, label, and punish regime instituted under NCLB.”

Make sure educator voices are heard! Visit getesearight.com and tell the Senate to get serious about opportunity for all and more time to learn.