For more than a decade, states and schools throughout this country have worked within the narrow confines of the No Child Left Behind law. It’s long past time to move past that law, and replace it with one that expands opportunity, increases flexibility and gives schools and educators more of the resources they need.
Today, seven years after the law was due for renewal, there is real movement on Capitol Hill toward a new law, with many important decisions happening in just the next few weeks. But it is by no means certain what that law will look like — or whether it will, indeed, be a step forward.
No Child Left Behind is the title applied to the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most important education law in the country, which turned 50 years old in January.
Since its beginnings in 1965, ESEA aimed to give students living in poverty, minority students and others who had historically struggled for a fair chance, in part, by providing billions of dollars in Title I funds to schools with high concentrations of poverty, and by supporting teacher professional development, and other essentials. When he introduced it in January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said the law would establish “full educational opportunity as our first national goal,” and said, “I believe deeply [that] no law I have signed, or will ever sign, means more to the future of America.”
In hundreds upon hundreds of conversations with educators, I have heard about frustrations with the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, and I am hopeful that lawmakers will find their way to a bipartisan agreement on a law that serves students, teachers and principals better.
The intentions of the No Child Left Behind revision were good, but the implementation, for many, has been frustrating. It aimed to bring transparency and meaningful responsibility for the learning progress of “subgroups” of students who had struggled in the past — students in poverty, minority students, those with disabilities, those learning English and others. That’s a good idea. But in practice, the law created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed.
I believe we need to do precisely the reverse, giving schools more resources, more support and more flexibility. I believe we need to scrap No Child Left Behind and replace it with a far better law — a law that continues key supports for equity in education as a national priority, rather than making equity of opportunity optional.
Recently, I laid out core ideas for a new law that ensures real opportunity. Teachers, principals, students and families have helped to spur enormous progress in education throughout the country — leading to our highest high-school graduation rate in history, dropout rates at historic lows, and a million more black and Hispanic students in college than there were in 2008.
I believe we need to double down on that kind of progress and expand opportunity for America’s children — not turn back the clock. In order to do that, I called for doing several things that have enormous relevance to educators.
First, we must make sure that schools and educators have the resources they need to do their vitally important work. Among significant increases for education in the budget the President recently laid out, he requested $2.7 billion in new funding for ESEA, including a billion-dollar increase for Title I.
A new ESEA should ensure that students are ready for school, by making high-quality preschool available and affordable for every family that wants it.
It should support teachers better throughout their careers, including through improved training.
It should provide support and funding to cut back on the time devoted to standardized testing in places where testing is excessive, without walking away from annual statewide assessments that provide valuable information to drive improvement and are critical to measuring growth instead of just proficiency.
In fact, the law should focus on the learning growth of all students, including subgroups that have struggled in the past, and ensure that where groups of students or schools do not make progress, there will be a plan for action and improvement.
It should help to ensure that students receive a well-rounded education that includes the arts, physical education, financial literacy, the sciences, and much more.
It should ensure that funds intended for high-poverty schools actually get to those schools.
It should ensure that all students have the benefit of high, state-chosen standards aligned with readiness for college and career.
And it should support innovation by educators at the state and local levels that drive improvements in student learning.
All of these steps will help accelerate the progress that America’s students are making, strengthen opportunity for all students, and ensure greater economic security for our nation.
I am hopeful that lawmakers from both parties will be able to come to agreement on a law that does all these things. I have been clear about my concerns about early proposals that have gone in a very different direction — one that would impose painful cuts on our schools, including a potential loss of as much as $675 million in the neediest schools. But I’m delighted to see that the leading Republican and Democrat on education in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, have announced their intention to develop a bipartisan bill.
I believe that ensuring a strong education for our young people — and ensuring that schools and educators have the resources they need to provide that education — is among the nation’s most important responsibilities.
I am hopeful that Republicans and Democrats in Congress will work together to reach bipartisan agreement on a bill that holds true to the promise of real opportunity.
I urge you to get the facts about this vital decision.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.