Improving American Education Is Not Optional

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the choices our country faces in replacing the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), and also known as No Child Left Behind. Interested in getting ESEA updates in your inbox? Sign up for email updates

On consecutive days this week, the United States was introduced to two very different visions for its most important education law. Quite soon, Congress will choose between them, and while the legislation could move fast enough to escape wide public notice, its consequences will be profound.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) stands as a statement that a high-quality education for every single child is a national interest and a civil right. The law has boosted funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, put books in libraries and helped ensure that minorities, students with disabilities, those learning English, those living in poverty and others who have struggled would not slip through the cracks.

Since then, and especially over the past 15 years, amid bipartisan agreement to focus strongly on students’ learning, progress has been significant. Since 2000, high school graduation rates, once stagnant, rose almost 10 percentage points, to an all-time high. A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school compared with 15 years ago and twice as likely to be in college. A million more black and Hispanic students are in college than were in 2008.

These are meaningful steps toward the day when every child in this country — whether he or she lives in a homeless shelter, migrant laborers’ camp or leafy suburb — has access to a solid education.

Yet, as Congress considers revamping ESEA, these trends are in question. This week, Republicans in Congress released a discussion draft of the bill that should worry anyone who believes the entire nation has an interest in the quality of children’s education.

Few would question that No Child Left Behind — the most recent version of ESEA — needs to be replaced. No Child Left Behind brought valuable attention to the needs of vulnerable student groups, but its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators. It’s time for a new law.

On Monday, I laid out core ideas for a law that would ensure real opportunity, one that must expand support and funding for schools and teachers. It must expand access to quality preschool. It must help to modernize teaching, through improved supports and preparation. And it must continue to enable parents, educators and communities to know how much progress students are making — and ensure that where students are falling behind, and where schools fail students year after year, action will be taken.

To measure student progress in a useful way, states need an annual statewide assessment. But the tests — and test preparation — must not take excessive time away from classroom instruction. Great teaching, not test prep, is what engages students and leads to higher achievement.

In many places, too many tests take up too much time, leaving many educators, families and students feeling frustrated. That’s why we want to work with Congress to urge states and school districts to review the tests they give and eliminate redundant and unnecessary ones. We’ll urge Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and districtwide standardized testing and notify parents if they exceed these limits.

Everyone can learn from what’s happening in places such as New York, which has capped standardized testing at 2 percent of instructional time, and North Carolina, Maryland, New Mexico and Rhode Island, where leaders and educators are carefully reviewing their tests to make sure students have time to learn and teachers have time to teach. To help states and districts make these changes, the president will request funding in his budget to aid in improving and streamlining the tests.

These steps would help accelerate the progress America’s students are making, strengthen opportunity for all students and ensure greater economic security for our young people.

Unfortunately, the Republican discussion draft goes in a different direction. While there are some areas where we agree, the Republican plan would make optional too many things we should be able to promise to our young people.

After years of progress, do we need statewide indicators of what progress all students are making each year, as the nation’s chief state school officers and a dozen-plus civil rights organizations have asked? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

Should funds intended for the highest-poverty schools actually go to those schools? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

Should we do more to ensure that all families have access to quality preschool? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

We cannot afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “it’s optional.”

I respect my Republican colleagues deeply, and their care for this country’s children is real. So I am optimistic about reaching bipartisan agreement on a bill that holds true to the promise of real opportunity.

In making choices for our children’s future, we will decide who we are as a nation. For the sake of our children, our communities and our country, let’s make the right choice.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education



  1. When are lawmakers and the media going to hold conversations with successful teachers? A heavy burden has been placed on the American educational system which is negatively impacting our students in grades K-12. Somehow, most people discussing education have never been educators. Don’t avoid us, we may actually have the solutions.

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