School Reform: A Chance for Bipartisan Governing

Cross-posted from The Washington Post

With a new Congress set to begin, key members on both sides of the aisle are poised to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In fact, the work has been underway for much of the past year, and few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform.

On many issues, Democrats and Republicans agree, starting with the fact that no one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures, even when they are making broad gains. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers want a system that measures not just an arbitrary level of proficiency, but student growth and school progress in ways that better reflect the impact of a school and its teachers on student learning.

Most people dislike NCLB’s one-size-fits-all mandates, which apply even if a community has better local solutions than federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options. Providing more flexibility to schools, districts and states – while also holding them accountable – is the goal of many people in both parties.

Both Republicans and Democrats embrace the transparency of NCLB and the requirement to disaggregate data to show achievement gaps by race, income, English proficiency and disability, but they are concerned that NCLB is driving some educators to teach to the test instead of providing a well-rounded education.

That is why many people across the political spectrum support the work of 44 states to replace multiple choice “bubble” tests with a new test that helps inform and improve instruction by accurately measuring what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking abilities.

NCLB’s accountability provisions also prompted many states to lower standards, but governors and legislators from both parties in all but a handful of states have rectified the problem by voluntarily adopting higher college and career-ready standards set by state education officials.

Finally, almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers. More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.

These issues are at the heart of the Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing ESEA: more flexibility and fairness in our accountability system, a bigger investment in teachers and principals, and a sharper focus on schools and students most at risk.

This common-sense agenda also reflects the quiet bipartisan revolution underway at the state and local level. With the incentive of the Race to the Top program, governors, states and districts across America are implementing comprehensive plans to reform education systems and boost student achievement.

School districts and their local partners in inner cities and rural communities are overcoming poverty and family breakdown to create high-performing schools, including charters and traditional public schools. They are taking bold steps to turn around low-performing schools by investing in teachers, rebuilding school staff, lengthening the school day and changing curricula.

In partnership with local teacher unions, districts are finding new ways to evaluate and compensate their teachers and staff their schools. Some districts have reshaped labor agreements around student success – and teachers have strongly supported these groundbreaking agreements. On Capitol Hill, numerous internal meetings with staff as well as external meetings with educational stakeholders have occurred, several hearings have also been held, and some legislative language has been drafted and shared at the staff level.

The urgency for reform has never been greater. Today, American students trail many other nations in reading, math and science, and a quarter of them do not graduate high school on time. Many college students do not finish, despite the clear national need for more college-educated workers who can successfully compete in the global economy.

President Obama in 2009 set a national goal that America will once again lead the world in college completion by 2020. With our economic and national security at risk, this is a goal Republicans, Democrats and all Americans can unite behind.

Since coming to Washington, I’ve been told that partisan politics inevitably trumps bipartisan governing. But if I have learned anything as education secretary, it is that conventional wisdom serves to prop up the status quo – and is often wrong.

In the past two years, I have spoken with hundreds of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress. While we don’t agree on everything, our core goals are shared – and we all want to fix NCLB to better support reform at the state and local level. So, let’s do something together for our children that will build America’s future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all.

Arne Duncan


  1. I would like to see the government bring back paraprofessional,teacher assistants, in all the primary grades and assigned to special areas such as math and reading. Here in Georgia these jobs have almost completely cut out. There only paras are in the Pre-K, Kindergarten and Special Ed. classes.

  2. Finally a change is about to come this Education Act “No Child Left Behind”. As an educator and a parent, I am not at all happy with this program. I have been in education for 25 years and seen anything like this. This test has caused so much stress for our students, teachers and parents. My daughter fail one portion of the test in fifth grade and it devastated her. Literally, I thought that she was about to have a nervous break down. Here in Georgia there has been so much wide spread cheating from our educators and some criminal charges have been brought up against these people. I am tire of my daughter getting test driven education. The teachers are not allowed to focus on the areas that students need help. They are too busy teaching a test. The students are not really understanding the curriculum. Over the past few years, I watched more and more students placed in Exceptional Education Classes (Special Ed.). Otherwise, these students would not be even consider for this program. They are too busy cutting federal funded programs such as Title 1 in the critical grades such as middle school. If a child needs special support programs such Title One in elementary school, well 9 out 10 the students will need this same type of program in middle and high. Another thing that concerns me about “No Child Left Behind”, how do you expect a very low functioning Exceptional Ed. student to pass the same test as a regular ed. student? Do you feel my pain? I need some answers.

  3. Mr. Duncun,
    I would like to suggest a novel approach to “fixing” NCLB. Please spend more time talking to educators than you do legislators! I would never try to tell a lawyer how to manage a crucial court case. (I don’t understand the inner workings and intricacies of the judicial system.) In the same way, most legislators do not have a genuine grasp of education either! Talk in earnest with these people and if you are going to visit, tell them you want to see the real thing, not something planned because YOU are going to be there. Talk to new teachers as well as experienced teachers at all levels. (A lot has changed since I started teaching 30 years ago.) Talk to special educators and other specialist. Talk to administrators. If you can get a better grasp of the reality of education as it is today, I believe you will get more support from educators (and parents) who will then communicate their wishes to the legislators. I believe EVERYONE has a vested interest in the future of education. Remember, it is not just parents that want children to succeed. The grandparents, aunts, uncles, even neighbors usually card as well. Not to mention that the children in school today are the doctors, plumbers, legislators,… and caretakers of tomorrow. I know that I want those types of individuals to be educated as well as they can be because they will be making decisions that will be affecting me. What would you be doing right now had you not gotten a good education?
    Still teacing after all these years.

  4. I am not a teacher, but I’m a business professional. I’m all for paying teachers more in order to attract better talent. However, like any business I would like to understand what is the percentage of cost per student that is spent on overhead (mainly the administrators at the district). It seems that a great deal of money is spent on non-essential positions that don’t contribute to the education of the students. I would like to see more transparency as to how much of our tax dollars go to these ineffective organizations and not the direct benefit of students. The unions are also a big problem in that they hinder progress because the status quo is better for them as they sit and collect their fees. Unfortunately politics will get in the way of true progress because the unions and politicians are in agreement of their current relationship.

  5. I would like to just basically voice how I see the plan working currently and how I would like to see it work. So will agree some will disagree that is their preference. I see currently that all children learn at the same level, no matter what level they need to learn at. Even with slight disabilities they are in mainstream classes and sent to a content mastery for some help. This is in Texas schools maybe not in your area because of the NCLB. So they way I see it is there should be tiers on the way children should be taught, per the way they learn. no one learns at the same level and no one learns the same way. Audio, visual and hand on are all methods of learning and most of you learned one of these were effective for you and still use this method daily, shouldn’t your child? Also. teachers that cannot provide proper teaching skills should be removed from the schools. If they cannot be fair to all students and teach a proper lesson plan per the schools guidelines then out they go. We need professional teacher that a.) will not put up with students being disrespectful, b.) will not show favoritism. c.) knows how to follow a lesson plan. The up administration should also be evaluated. Here is an example of why, Disability Act has certain rules that schools do not follow therefore the advocacy people have to come in and investigate the school to make them follow the rules. Such as if there is a high functioning autistic child in the school there are proper standards that are taken to deal with this child’s behavior, the schools in this area call the parents and a.) tell them the child is in ISS, b.) suspend the child or c.) call the parent to come pick up the child. As a result of this the parent then gets a letter from the schools truant officer stating that if the child misses one more day of school the parent will be fined. So this is why the administration needs to be reviewed. If it sounds like I went off on a tangent maybe I did but the school system is awful and needs to have something done. Children that have a higher learning capability are bored therefore they do not try harder because they are “bored” and do poorer in class, I know this because my child is an example of this.

  6. Change the way we think. We think every child should go to college. Lets change to a more European model so that somewhere aroung grade 8 students take aptitude tests that determine the career path for each student. We need plumbers, automechanics, electricians, bricklayers, even truck drivers and waiters. Sure the kids with 20 or better on the act should follow the college path to teacher, archetect, engineering, legal and medical careers, but not everybody needs to go to college. By learning a “trade” the student will go into the work force 4 to 6 years sooner than a college grad and will have every bit as much value to the community as a college grad with a BA in accounting. Also, the true aptitude of a student may be “hands on” more so than” book learning”.

  7. The problem in education is NOT a result of poor teaching. Politicians have created and passed laws that greatly limit the teachers ability to successfully meet the needs of all students. Lets start by talking about inclusion. Although teachers multi-task, it is EXTREMELY difficult to teach a class that has three students who speak little or no English, four students with severe disabilities, such as Downs Syndrome or ED, and three students with major behavioral issues. Who gets left behind in this type of classroom? The gifted students, who have the most potential to be future leaders of our country, are often the students who get left behind. Since they are the most independent, they end up receiving the least amount of teacher time. The teacher ends up spending most of his/her time dealing with disruptive behavior or trying to teach English to the non-English speaking students.

    Now teachers are being told that the government wants less special education referrals, as if we can help the fact that a student has a learning disability. In order to refer a student for special education, we now have to have a mountain of documentation for the request to be considered. What happened to trusting the teacher’s professional opinion? The government has forced us to waste a lot of time and money trying to get our jobs done. Politicians needs to take a few steps back and let us do our jobs without their interference.

    The latest news is that classroom sizes are going to increase in order to decrease budgets. Is that what is best for students? Obviously, this idea came from a politician who has never been in the classroom or they were in the classroom 15+ years ago and didn’t have the ridiculous governmental interference that we have now. If money is a serious issue, here’s a thought….require a U.S. tax return in order to enroll a child in school. The U.S. spends around 30+ billion dollars a year educating and feeding students whose parents do not pay into our tax system, most of which are illegal aliens. Do these students need to be educated? Of course. However, if the parents are not paying into the tax system that funds our schools, then they should pay tuition for their child to attend school. Any person with half of a brain will tell you that you cannot pay out more money than you take in, yet our government continues to do so. Politicians need to quit using teachers as their excuse for the problems in education and start addressing the real problems.

  8. Public schools cannot compete with these charter schools for several reasons. Some charters have raffles just to get in which means that the parents are involved and want the kids there. These students will work harder and produce better results. Many of these schools require the students to live on site during the week and spend Saturday with their parents off site. Public schools have students for only a short time during the day and then they return home. If the home is disfunctional, the possible benefits of school can be offset by the negative environment found there. Private/charter schools have a percentage of students that do not survive at that site. Public schools do not have the luxury. State laws require compulsory attendance. Students can’t just be asked to leave because they didn’t live up to their end of the contract. NCLB was a joke and in the efforts to amend, lawmakers should step back and involve more parents, great teachers, principals, etc. Expectations that are high, reasonable (attainable), and agreed upon have a better chance of success. That is research based.

  9. I do hope that policy makers consult with the NCES to develop measures that are statistically sound(er). Also, measuring growth on non-vertically aligned assessments is comparing apples to oranges. And finally, just because a measure is the only of its kind does NOT make that measure acceptably valid or fair for making decisions that impact schools, employees, or children.

  10. Improving NCLB is a great idea. Having dropped to 34th in the world in high school math is a very damaging outcome for the economy, our nation and most individuals who graduate high school.

    Why are we not learning from the top performing nations? We appear to be focused on reinventing the wheel. We also happen to be the 4th biggest spending nation per child for education, delivering the 34th result in math. We also happen to be a country that is the only one left with centralized management, huge central management organizations, and huge budgets submitted by superintendents without any measurable academic goals – and Boards of Education simply approve it. All other industrialized countries abandoned such an old system a long time ago, because they do not work. This is the area we need to change first.

    I am not a teacher, but this “new” idea of evaluating teachers based on “added value” a new BS idea in education circles (looking at grade improvement as a percentage per class a teacher teaches) is invalid. Will a fantastic teacher produce a significant increase in grades with a crowd of kids who simply do not want to learn and hate to go to school? I don’t think so. What about a great teacher with a class whose performance is already great? I don’t think so.

    The No. 1 country in the world, Finland, does this. They pick teacher candidates with a masters degree in the field they are to teach. Then those candidates have to pass a number of tests to indicate a good fit for teaching. Then they have to go for a post grad program of several years to be qualified teachers. The teachers have total authority to produce better results, including the choice of books and teaching materials. There are typically two teachers to a classeachers do not spend much time in of a class. They assign problems to student groups of 2-3 for the students to investigate and learn new things that way. The teachers mingle around to make sure that no team gets stuck and all students make headway and learn. From grade 1 to 12. They deliver the best results in the world for 25-30% less than our cost per student. Finland is not a lower cost country than the USA. Surprisingly, they deliver excellent results in every school. They have challenging minority issues as well. These teachers have weekly meetings and solve all problems among themselves.

    Is there something we could learn from such excellent performers? Absolutely.
    Do we have any great examples in the USA? Look up the Harlem Success Academy in the worst demographic area of the nation. They are a Charter School. Had a tough first year, but after that they delivered the 5th and sixth best reading and math results in the entire state of New York, who are 4th in the US.

    Our public schools have a monopoly. They must have competition, the great creator of quality. That means allow the entire tax money we pay for each individual student to follow the student to the school of parental choice. And that includes private schools as well.

    Let the bad ones disappear.

  11. The real problem isn’t the teachers (usually). The problem is that some students WANT to be left behind, because they simply don’t care what is being taught. They don’t see how it will help them. Instead of going down to their level to spoon-feed them, why not find out why they are anchoring themselves to begin with?

  12. Two more suggestions for elevating the teaching profession and thereby reforming schools: (1) tenure should be *earned* not given by default (2) student evaluations should be included as part of the teacher evaluation process.

    Arne, you *say* that test scores are only one piece of the puzzle…I’m glad to hear you are starting to back that up with actions.

  13. Sounds like steps in the right direction, although I am quite skeptical about the possibility and even desirability of trying to “define” teacher effectiveness.

    If you really want to elevate the teaching profession, double their pay, make it a full-year position, and shift to a more practicum-based teacher preparation program. The competitive pay will make it a viable alternative to other respectable but less critical positions eg, lawyers, thereby drawing a more competitive workforce. Firing teachers during a teaching shortage and blaming them for poor student test scores will not help.

  14. As a teacher in southern Maryland, and just a stone’s throw away from the nation’s capital, I’d like to weigh in.

    What I would like to see is a fair and balanced set of evaluations for teachers that are not primarily dependent on factors that are external to their actual teaching potential (mostly, to revisit the inaccurate measuring stick of student achievement). Gauging teacher effectiveness based upon student growth (and ESPECIALLY student achievement) does not account for factors outside the teacher’s control that directly affect students including home-life, socio-economic status, mood of the student at the time the test is taken, intrinsic student motivations and more. Underachieving students (for many reasons unrelated to their teachers) can undercut the perception an effective teacher’s ability to teach.

    Instead of vilifying the teaching profession and going on the witch-hunt for the “bad teachers” (or “ineffective teachers” or however you may wish to label them), perhaps a more positive focus on how to promote teacher effectiveness and a more concrete emphasis on students being (even partially) responsible for their own academic success is the more responsible and ultimately more effective route to America’s educational success. Let us not reinvent the wheel, but instead, model after countries that are experiencing the best successes with their students instead.

    I see that Mr. Duncan says that he has spoken with hundreds of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress. I would hope that Mr. Duncan would also have spoken to ten teachers for every politician he’s spoken to. As with any problem, going to the expert will get you the most efficient and successful results; you don’t go to a politician and ask them how to fix the leak in your plumbing — you go to a plumber. Please don’t poll us. Please visit our classrooms for more than ten or fifteen minutes. Please take the opportunity to challenge yourself, Mr. Duncan (and this goes out to anyone who would hold the position of Secretary of Education) to go into the classrooms as a “substitute teacher” for at least two weeks out of every school year and acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the experience of being a teacher. Please take this opportunity (or “challenge”, if you will) seriously and sub in the same classroom for an extended period of time so that students are not “on their best behavior” while you’re there for your snapshot visit. Spend both weeks straight in the same classroom for the year and visit different schools in each new year. Really get a feel for the environment that teachers teach in and the students they work with. The Department of Education will be infinitely wealthier for it.

  15. “More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.”
    – That’s a big assumption

    How do you measure the effect of outside influences ( home environment) on student achievement? Without this variable accounted for, it’s impossible to accurately measure teacher effectiveness.

  16. Will there be an opportunity for grandparents and parents to weigh in on this subject and how to reach this laudable goal?

  17. What is the timeline for the re-writing of the ESEA? Or, is there a date or deadline when Congress is scheduled to review/reauthorize the ESEA? Will there be hearings? open to the public?

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