What's in the Works for Education Reform

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to battle poverty and increase academic achievement by signing into law the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The ESEA provided a framework for funding public schools and began reforming the way the United States educated its children. During George W. Bush's administration, the act was reformed to become No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which quickly became known around the country as No Child Left Untested. For 14 years, schools and students have had to comply with the NCLB mandates and penalties even though its limitations and flaws were recognized and berated long ago. Forty-one states in the nation currently hold NCLB waivers. These waivers grant states flexibility within the law to improve student achievement by designing and implementing their own plans. The waivers have always been included in NCLB itself.

Many argue the time for congress to revise NCLB is long overdue. In early January of 2015, United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, addressed Congress about the need for a new ESEA. The plan will build on the progress made under NCLB, and it must "improve access to high-quality preschool, foster innovation, and advance equity and access." Congress has begun to act, but the House and Senate are still at odds as to what the new bill will include.

Following Secretary Duncan's call on Congress, National Education Association (NEA) President, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, published a letter she wrote to Duncan, which stressed the need for an "opportunity dashboard." This is a set of data that will help lawmakers and administrators ascertain which schools may need additional funding and which schools may be over-funded. The proposed dashboard could include data about student access to the following: courses in Advanced Placement, dual credit, foreign languages, and art; school nurses, counselors, and psychologists; athletic programs; technology; libraries; and community healthcare and wellness support. Considering the incredible population of students living in low-income housing, Garcia feels the "opportunity dashboard will provide far greater transparency to parents, communities, and policymakers about the kinds of supports students truly need to improve learning and serve the whole child." In addition to accessing courses and support that works to improve students' college and career readiness, the dashboard could include information about schools' graduation and attendance rates, class sizes, and teacher qualification data.

To date, Garcia is still advocating for the opportunities dashboard so that we can see what students have to help them become well-rounded productive adults. The analysis that could be done with the opportunities dashboard may reveal the reasons why some schools are failing. The new ESEA must rectify the shortcomings of NCLB. "[Garcia] said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn. Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socio-economic issues was never realistic." The Senate just might be on the same page as the NEA with this issue. In their version of the new ESEA bill, which passed 81 to 17, the opportunities dashboard was included.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have decided to keep testing requirements in math and reading; however, states will be able to decide how school and teacher performance will be affected by the assessments. Along with this, both versions of the bill will keep the federal government from mandating academic standards. This means standards, such as the controversial Common Core, would not have to be adopted by the states; they could create their own standards. The main differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill revolve around funding and the dissolution of 70 federal education programs, programs which could be replaced with grants to be accessed by states for use with their own programs.

For a bill to proceed to the President's desk, the same version of the bill must pass the House and the Senate. Since this did not happen in the case of the recently revised versions of the ESEA, a conference committee has been working since July to draft a new version of the bill. House and Senate Democrats and Republicans serve on the conference committee to complete this common legislative process. There is no way to tell when the committee will present the next revision of the ESEA bill. Nearly half of a year elapsed before the last ESEA conference committee composed NCLB. At this time, some predict the current committee may not complete their endeavor until a new president is residing in the White House.