By Michael Magee | CEO, Chiefs for Change
In 2001, in a profoundly bi-partisan effort represented by President George W. Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy, Congress revised the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The new ESEA refocused the public’s attention on issues that largely determine the fate of the nation. It also passed the year that the iPod and Wikipedia launched. The Montreal Expos were still a baseball team and the Washington Nationals were not. A lot can change in 15 years.
Now is the right time to revise the law again and thankfully Congress appears determined to do so.
The organization I lead, Chiefs for Change, brings a unique perspective to the table. We represent a bipartisan group of state and local chief education officers running large systems—systems that have made some of the strongest achievement gains for students of all backgrounds in the country. Our policy vision is based on the collective wisdom of our members. It is both bold and practical.
There are a lot of realistic things our states and cities can do now—with the support of ESEA—to create more opportunities for young Americans. What they all have in common is simply:
Give families ownership over facts and decisions regarding schools, and give teachers room to innovate.
Here are three principles our legislators can follow to help make that happen:
(1) Information about student achievement must be transparent, highly visible and accurate.
As a parent you have a right to know how the pace and quality of your child’s learning compares to that of her peers, in her school, in her city or town, in her state, in the nation and, yes, around the world. Her opportunities in the world she is about to inherit will be highly dependent on her knowledge and skills.
One of the most basic things government can and should do with taxpayer dollars is to let parents know where their children stand.You should be able to go to an online resource and find, in five minutes, a simple explanation for how your child is doing and how her school is fairing, relative to other students and schools. You should be able find representative sample questions from state assessments quickly and easily when you want to better understand how your child is being measured.
Access to accurate information about student achievement is a parental right the federal government should protect.
Similarly, the public has a right to know whether there are concerning differences in achievement between children of different backgrounds and different needs. Identifying such gaps depends on high levels of participation and transparency.
Lastly, assessments should reflect our high expectations for your child and great aspirations for American students generally. U.S. students being held to a lower bar than their peers from around the world is, frankly, un-American. Their future depends on us believing they can achieve and reflecting that belief in the way we measure their progress.
(2) When in doubt, lean in the direction of opening access for students instead of restricting it.
As a nation we continue to be plagued by stark disparities not only in student achievement but also in student opportunity. Since the 1980s American public schools have become more segregated, not less. Many traditional systems continue to restrict students to a single school based on their home address, compounding the negative effects of segregated housing and poorly distributed public services. Rural students are unnecessary victims of their communities’ remote locations and poor economies of scale.
Students in schools that are not serving them well continue to require more and better options. There is an opportunity now for Congress to think more expansively and creatively about helping America’s most underserved students, not just through support for the Charter Schools Program (although that is an important tool) but for intra- and inter-district choice as well as Critical Course Access.
This latter opportunity—giving students access to the critical courses they need to be college and career ready—is vital. No middle schooler should be stuck without access to Algebra I. No 10th grader should be deprived of chemistry or trapped in a school that doesn’t offer AP classes. The solution might be as simple as funding for transportation twice a week to another area school.
Technology, too, is suddenly making access to high-quality content and instruction possible for these students—but Congress needs to support and encourage their school systems to expand those opportunities.
Simply put: We support rules that allow families to enroll their children in public schools and school courses beyond just those offered where they can afford to live.
(3) To the greatest extent possible, let teachers and students decide.
So many of the success stories of the charter school sector are the result of states and cities giving a great teacher the autonomy and opportunity to design a school based precisely on the needs of her students. Beyond its chartering mechanism, ESEA reauthorization provides opportunities to similarly expand the reach of great teachers and unleash the power of their innovative thinking as well as to get students and their families more involved in moving toward success.
Where states decide to create innovative new statewide districts (as they have in Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan) that empower teachers and students, the federal government should have a program available to support them and should ensure that federal funding is distributed to them equitably. These “achievement districts” allow struggling schools to get out from under the bureaucracy and politics that restrict their avenues to improvement. Governance innovation is an underappreciated school improvement strategy the federal government should incentivize.
Just as educators are best suited to make key decisions around curriculum and instruction, students—and especially middle and high school students—also need more ownership over and accountability for the pace and direction of their own learning. Our federal and state governments should support more teacher-led innovations and student self-direction, even if that simply means getting out of their way.
With the reauthorization of ESEA, we have another opportunity to align our rhetoric with our rituals, our goals with the rules that govern our efforts. Fifty million students and their families are depending on federal, state and city leaders to stand on American ideals, come together and get it right.