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Press Release

Education Leaders Send Recommendations to Congress and White House on ESEA Reform


Please note: Organizations of signatories are provided for identification puposes only.


President George W. Bush
House and Senate ESEA Conferees
Congressional Leaders

William J. Bennett, Empower America
Lisa Graham Keegan, Education Leaders Council
Chester E. Finn, Jr., Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Krista Kafer, The Heritage Foundation

Recommendations for Improving ESEA Legislation

October 3, 2001

Like you, our foremost concern is national security. We do not know when Congressional conferees and leaders will find it practical to conclude their work on such domestic policy issues as the pending reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When that day comes, we want to offer you our recommendations on several key issues that have great bearing on the reform impact of the resulting legislation and important consequences for the future of American public education. As you will see, our suggestions pertain only to a sub-set of the issues in conference, albeit those that we believe matter most.

We know that you have been contacted by other organizations–most of which oppose reform—claiming to represent the interests of all of America’s school chiefs and state superintendents. We want to correct that assertion; the Education Leaders Council includes among its members school chiefs and superintendents—representing more than 30% of the country’s K-12 students—who value real reform and have pledged to work with you to implement rigorous ESEA reforms. Others of us have differing memberships and constituencies or speak as independent scholars, but we possess considerable experience in education reform and a deep dedication to making it actually happen.

  • Annual Yearly Progress: Let the sun shine in; the rest will follow
  • We do not believe that resolving the debate on AYP hinges on devising the perfect mathematical formula into which states can plug their data and determine their progress toward meeting a standard. Because every state will set its own "proficiency" standard – with varying degrees of rigor – it is simply irrational to ask all fifty states to get all their students to different destinations in the same amount of time. Such a strategy can only encourage the setting of low standards, and punish states who set lofty goals.
    But focusing on timelines and enforcement mechanisms is a fundamental mistake; we should begin by looking at the ways in which the data are collected and sorted. By ensuring that states gather, disaggregate and analyze their data in meaningful ways — and make the results public for all to see — we can ensure that (1) states do not set the bar too low; and (2) states gauge progress by looking at the students who are the farthest away from the standard, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

    If disaggregated data are also looked at in a meaningful way – and made easily available and understandable so parents can see whether their child and their school are making gains – then parents should demand that schools make progress rapidly. Shame motivates, recognition inspires, and public review and analysis of data is, in itself, a kind of accountability.

    The approach we are recommending provides parents and educators (as well as state and local voters and taxpayers) with as much information as possible to determine, first, which students and schools are in the greatest need of improvement based purely on achievement; then, after disaggregating by race and socioeconomic status, helps schools identify any trends regarding achievement within these subgroups. With such data in hand, states can make informed decisions about the timeline for getting all students to meet their academic standards.

    As part of this "Sunshine Strategy," we recommend the following:

    Require states first to divide students into quintiles -- based solely on academic achievement (i.e. scores on their state tests) -- and then disaggregate by race and socioeconomic status. This approach does not look solely at the physical or economic attributes of the student, but rather looks first at the most important factor – the ability to achieve. Overlaying disaggregated data regarding race or economic status on top of these achievement data will then allow states to look at how various groups are performing. But the academic quintiles ensure that states can always see which students are lowest achieving.

    Track students over time and as a cross-section. Schools should track their student progress both longitudinally – tracking the progress of the class of 2014, for example, as the students move from grade to grade – and as a cross-section – comparing the progress of all third graders, for example, each year. This would ensure that students are followed and their progress monitored. Ideally, states would track progress using both mechanisms, but states should be expected to use at least one of these approaches.

    Gauge progress on whether the number of students in the bottom two quintiles decreases from the "baseline" year. Ideally, after three years of data, states should be able to identify trends and begin the process of improving student achievement.

    Review, then recognize. After reviewing state data, the Department of Education should host an annual summit to recognize and publicize the most promising education reforms – based on the data -- being implemented in the states. This conference would not consist of federal staffers updating educators on programs, but, rather, active educators from around the country sharing their expertise with colleagues. States should not be rewarded financially for their successes nor financially punished for their failures. The sums being contemplated as rewards are derisory; and the history of "withholding funds" from errant states and districts is disheartening. The point of a sunshine strategy is to enable each state’s parents, voters and taxpayers to hold their own education system to account for its performance.

  • Straight A’s: Make Lemonade
  • Both House and Senate bills contain limited provisions to allow states or districts some flexibility in the use of the federal funds in exchange for more rigorous accountability. While states and local school districts participating in such programs in both bills are, indeed, held to more rigorous standards of accountability, the flexibility afforded them is so constrained that it seems nearly as burdensome as the federal requirements from which participants are trying to free themselves in the first place.
    Still, each bill has elements that could be combined to provide states and districts with more meaningful flexibility than either bill currently allows.

    The Senate Straight A’s proposal, for example, both limits the number of participants in the program, and also describes a formulaic, bookkeeping process that would wear out the most stalwart accountant. However, the bill does contain a promising provision allowing states to develop alternative funding allocations that better target poverty or educational need. Rather than focus on whether dollar amounts increase at schools, Straight A’s should focus on results and the effects of the targeting that states and LEAs may choose to implement.

    Language included in the House bill permits transferability among a number of specified accounts, as well as a "Local Flexibility Demonstration Act" to allow up to 100 LEAs to waive program requirements. While this allows states and LEAs to move funds within existing accounts, it does not provide states with the opportunity to reallocate funds among schools with the greatest need; instead, for the most part, states and LEAs remain subject to existing formulas and allocations.

    The final proposal should include the best elements of both bills – the ability for states and LEAs to better target resources on the most at-risk students, as well as the option of transferring funds among other authorized accounts to ensure that local priorities can be pursued.

  • NAEP: A Necessary Benchmark
  • While states need the flexibility to develop their own assessments, there must also be an external benchmark against which to compare the rigor of their standards, tests and accountability systems. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides such a marker. Comparing NAEP results to the results of a state test might reveal, for example, that, while students appeared to be making gains on the state assessment, their NAEP scores remained flat. This may indicate that something is amiss in the state assessment system and help educators adjust their standards and assessments accordingly. Similarly, a wide gap between the fraction of students judged "proficient" on the state’s own test and the percentage found proficient on state-level NAEP is a revealing clue that something may be amiss in the state’s standards and expectations, which may be too low or, possibly, too high.
    These are unique capabilities of NAEP, making it possible to measure achievement at the state level against the nation. Comparing state scores to NAEP also gives parents more information about the quality of their child’s education. We are long time NAEP supporters and believe that it is the best achievement-tracking system we have and that every state should stand up and be measured by it.

    We recommend that every state be expected to participate in "state NAEP" at least in reading and math, at least in grades 4 and 8, at least every two years, and that the federal government should bear the full cost of such participation. We do not, however, believe that a state’s NAEP results should be used to reward or penalize it in a "high stakes" accountability system. This, it seems to us, would inevitably distort NAEP. Sunshine will work better—so long as the data are trustworthy. To that end, we also favoring strengthening NAEP’s independence and taking additional steps to ensure that its tests are of high quality and its results speedily and accurately reported.

  • Charter Schools: Keep the funding, minimize the red tape
  • Charter schools enjoy the hearty support of members from both sides of the aisle. Indeed, they’re one of the few elements in education reform on which most members of Congress seemed to agree, as does the administration. Both the House and Senate versions of the ESEA reauthorization recognize the success of charter schools in producing higher levels of academic achievement, and both bills include funds to help states design and implement charter schools and to evaluate their progress. But there now seems to be some concern among conferees that the charter school "accountability" language is inadequate or misdirected.
    We disagree. In our view, without the following elements, federal charter school policy will do more harm than good:

    Charter schools need full access to "their share" of federal funds. The amount of money set aside for charter schools is not large, compared to that which remains for other, less successful programs. And unlike most spending on education programs, funding for charter schools can be easily stopped if the promised results are not achieved. States, districts, and other groups that want to start charter schools depend on federal funds, particularly for their physical plant expenses, which are usually not covered by local or state budgets. Charters remain fully accountable for the federal funds they receive.

    For this reason, we urge the Congress to continue to provide charters with the same fair access to federal funding as their more traditional public school counterparts.

    Avoid imposing additional regulation. Study after study has shown that the success of charter schools is due in large part to their unique freedom from the sort of burdensome regulations and bureaucracy that bog down most of our regular public schools. As public schools, charter schools must already protect the health and safety of their students and provide all children with equal access to their services. Imposing additional regulations will do nothing but eliminate the very advantage on which the success of these schools relies. Charters should be held accountable for how well they help all their students achieve higher academic goals, not for how well they comply with federal regulations.

    Let them report to their chartering agency alone. What makes some in government and education particularly nervous about charter schools is that they can receive their charters—and are accountable to—entities other than state and local education agencies. But this is another ingredient in the recipe of charter schools’ success. Universities, special charter boards and other such entities are often in closer contact with and better able to oversee the progress of schools they charter than state or local governments, and several states have chosen to structure their charter-school accountability arrangements in this fashion. It would be a major corruption of the charter school idea for Congress to over-ride such state decisions and subject charter schools to the same accountability-enforcement "hierarchy" as conventional public schools. Charter schools (especially those enrolling Title I students) should indeed be accountable for their results, but they should be accountable to the public entities that sponsor them, not to the hierarchy.

  • IDEA: Fix it first
  • When, in 1975, Congress passed what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it promised that it would eventually pay 40% of the nation’s special education costs. The Harkin amendment to S.1 would have this bill be paid in full over the next ten years — at a cost of $181 billion. While we believe that special education should receive adequate resources, we also believe that the way the nation currently runs its special education programs must be reviewed carefully and reformed in substantial ways before such major additional funding is considered — and certainly before the program is converted into a virtual entitlement. Nothing would more surely kill the prospects of needed IDEA reform than to "fully fund" the current, troubled program.
    In spite of—or perhaps because of—the best intentions of policymakers, a special education enforcement system has grown up in which paperwork is the chief activity, lawsuits are the primary motivator, and a double standard for behavior and separate and unequal expectations are the norm. Too many students are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities simply because they cannot read at grade level, often because they have not been adequately taught. And too often the way into special education programs is a one-way street; there is no exit.

    IDEA needs a full-dress review. This process was well begun in the recent study by the Progressive Policy Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. It should be continued in the context of the reauthorization process scheduled to begin next year. Between now and then, we would favor a special commission or review group to probe special-ed policy in depth, leading to Congressional hearings on reform proposals. In any case, policy decisions should precede funding decisions for IDEA.

  • Focus on National Priorities
  • The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted funds on a small number of policy priorities, placing clear emphasis on disadvantaged children. Over time, however, ESEA has come to represent many different interests and no longer focuses on this vulnerable population. The scattershot approach of current law with its 61 uncoordinated "categorical" programs has been notably unsuccessful in closing the gap between poor and middle-class youngsters. The absence of clear focus and priorities has diffused the effort to help those most in need. Renewing this hodgepodge of specialized, sometimes redundant and generally ineffective programs assures that scarce federal dollars will continue to be diverted from this most pressing issue.
    Commendably, the original "No Child Left Behind" plan refocused the federal education investment on the most urgent national education priorities. It consolidated ESEA programs into a handful of flexible funding streams. Regrettably, this focus has been lost in the bills before the conference committee. The House version contains 47 ESEA programs and 5 non-ESEA programs. The Senate version authorizes an astonishing 89 ESEA programs and 12 non-ESEA programs. According to Secretary Paige, the Senate version authorizes more that 70 programs unsought in No Child Left Behind while even the leaner House version exceeds the administration’s focused approach by 20 programs. We believe the conferees should take bold steps to return this legislation to the targeted and prioritized approach that President Bush proposed in January. The final bill should consolidate funds for unrequested programs and channel them into compelling national education priorities, particularly disadvantaged children. Funds within broad categories could then be deployed by states and communities for specific programs and activities that best meet their needs. Not only is this sound policy; according to a recent survey by George Washington University's Institute for Education Policy Studies, it is also widely favored by the American public.

    Bold program consolidation will provide greater flexibility and decision-making at a local level, which will help ensure that federal funds are used most effectively. Moreover, it will focus the nation's energies on the most critical issues, of which by far the most urgent is the continuing achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent peers. The imperative for setting real priorities is clear.

    We respectfully submit these recommendations in the hope that they will help you craft a bill that achieves substantive improvement in American elementary/secondary education. If you would like to discuss these issues further, or if you have any questions about our suggestions, please do not hesitate to call any of us. We wish you all the best as you complete your negotiations and strive to achieve the best possible education for all our children.