The Policy and Politics of Rewriting the Nation's Main Education Law: The Issues Are Difficult and Politics Tricky, Which Means That Renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Next Year Will Be Particularly Challenging

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During 2011-12, Congress plans to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the baseline federal law that authorizes a broad range of programs and policies, from the $13 billion Title I program for disadvantaged children to a $2 million program for history and civics education. Most of the debate will focus on the comprehensive amendments made to ESEA in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal and state government influence in such areas as student testing and teacher qualifications.

In light of the controversy associated with NCLB--maybe "the most tainted brand in America" according to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the law's prime architects--the next set of ESEA amendments will drop the NCLB name. It will also probably include substantial policy revisions, long awaited by most educators after efforts to reauthorize ESEA stalled in the previous two Congresses. But the current political climate doesn't bode well for passage of a major ESEA reauthorization bill. With more Republican and conservative members in Congress, deadlock is as likely as consensus.

What forces could lead to deadlock on a much-anticipated bill of this magnitude? What will it take to surmount the obstacles?


Although the rewrite of ESEA will be comprehensive, most of the attention will focus on a limited number of pressing issues. The starting point for congressional debate is likely to be the Obama Administration's plan, which is described in A Blueprint for Reform, released by the U.S. Department of Education in March 2010.

Goals and Accountability Measurements. Accountability for improved student achievement lies at the heart of the ESEA debate. Two fundamental questions will guide the reauthorization: How should student progress in English language arts and mathematics be measured? And what should the consequences be for schools that don't make sufficient progress?

NCLB set a goal that every student will be proficient in English language arts and mathematics by 2014. Each state has established its own standards for proficiency, along with periodically rising interim targets that lead to 100% proficiency by 2014. Every public school in the nation must test its students annually and publicly report the results for students as a whole and for various student subgroups. Schools that receive federal funds (the majority of schools) are subject to consequences if they don't demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in meeting their state's targets for the percentages of students scoring proficient and other achievement indicators.

The Administration proposes replacing the NCLB goal of 100% proficiency with the goal that by 2020, all students will graduate from high school, or be on track to graduate, ready for college and a career. The Administration also wants to replace AYP with a system that measures individual student growth over time, rather than measuring the aggregate performance of a whole group of students against a set of fixed achievement targets. Performance targets would be retained, as would the disaggregation of results by subgroups. As with many issues, the Obama Blueprint does not contain more specifics about accountability.

Controversies will develop in Congress over whether Obama's new goal of college and career readiness is concrete enough to replace proficiency, how to use growth models to measure individual student progress, and whether keeping performance targets is a backdoor way to retain an AYP-like system. Many Republican and conservative members are likely to question whether the federal government should require any type of accountability for schools or if accountability should be left to state or local control.

Common Standards. NCLB allowed each state to develop its own academic standards for English language arts and mathematics, an approach that has resulted in 50 different sets of state standards. …