Congressional inaction leaving education behind

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Education Commissioner Terry Holliday
Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

No Child Left Behind – it’s been part of our vernacular since 2001 when Congress passed the bipartisan legislation.  The idea was to change the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through an emphasis on closing achievement gaps and greater accountability. The hallmark of the legislation was the goal that 100 percent of students would reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

While a laudable goal, there were major problems in the implementation of the law. States were allowed to set their own standards, design their own tests and set proficiency cut scores as they saw fit. The result was a wide variation among the states in the percentage of students reaching proficiency in reading and math. The National Assessment Governing Board highlighted these differences in a comparison of state testing data and data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In several cases, states reported 80-90 percent of students scored proficient on state tests, while less than 20 percent reached proficiency on NAEP assessments. When many students reached college, this disparity became evident – they were not adequately prepared.

In 2007 Congress was due to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.  In the meantime, there has been significant debate about how to do so. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed a blueprint to reauthorize NCLB; both the House and Senate have tried to move legislation that would reauthorize this important education law. However, to date, there has been no consensus on change and no success.

While a 100 percent proficiency goal was worthy, it was also an impossible goal to reach. With the 2014 deadline looming, states and schools faced a deadline that would label all schools as failures. No Child Left Behind had lost all credibility with educators, parents, and the public. Something had to be done.

So in absence of ESEA reauthorization, the President and Secretary utilized executive orders and existing language in No Child Left Behind to allow states to seek waivers with the proviso they would do a better job preparing all children for college and careers. I had the opportunity to serve on a task force with the Council of Chief State School Officers that developed next-generation accountability principles that were a foundation for many states as they asked for a No Child Left Behind waiver. To date 44 states have received waivers.

The waiver issue has been in the news lately. Washington became the first state to lose a waiver when the state was unable to meet key requirements that it had agreed to in its waiver application.  During hearings on the administration’s proposed education budget, many of the questions from committee members focused on the No Child Left Behind waivers. Education writers have been criticizing the administration about how the Department of Education has handled the waivers.

The criticism is misplaced. States asked for relief from No Child Left Behind due to the impending 2014 deadline.  The criticism should be redirected to the root of the problem – Congress. Through its inability to pass a reauthorized No Child Left Behind law, Congress has left states floundering and the Department of Education attempting to help without any clear guidance or vision from lawmakers.

Congress has failed to meet minimum expectations on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The public recognizes this as evidenced by the low ratings on opinion polls. With a mid-term election in November, it is time to ask candidates what they would do to get Congress moving again so that our education system is not left behind.

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