Reauthorizing ESEA: a first step in returning education to its roots

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) appears, finally, to be nearing reauthorization. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Congress will, after years of effort, begin to right some of the wrongs wrought by the excessive focus on standards and accountability in No Child Left Behind (ESEA’s current iteration). The draft framework sent to the conference committee swings the pendulum from federal overreach and prescription back toward state and local control. It claws back—but does not eliminate—accountability requirements by striking “Adequate Yearly Progress,” annual measurable objectives, and the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency from the act.

Not only would this ESEA do less wrong, it would do more right; key passages hold promise to return ESEA to its civil rights and antipoverty roots. Informed by rising rates of student poverty, the proposed framework recognizes that poverty poses a major impediment to effective teaching and learning.

It is true that much of the debate around reauthorization has been about testing, funding for charter schools and vouchers, the Common Core State Standards, and a range of other issues worthy of consideration. But these are not central to the core purpose of ESEA, which was originally passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Over the years, that purpose has been diluted. But as 10 organizations, led by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, wrote to education leaders of both houses last year, Congress has a unique chance to reverse course and bring ESEA back to its roots. We called on Congress to follow five key principles in ESEA reauthorization:

These five principles represent the original spirit and intent of the law, and they give states, districts, and schools the flexibility they need to address their specific concerns and meet the unique needs of their students. We propose that they be at the center of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

I reiterate the five principles here:

  • Disparities in opportunity, and the achievement gaps they cause, begin long before kindergarten, so a reauthorized ESEA must include funding and incentives for universal access to high-quality early-childhood education and family supports.
  • Disparities in opportunity continue through K-12 school years, so ESEA must include provisions that help states, districts, and schools narrow those gaps through a supports-based approach. This includes funding and incentives for states, districts, and schools to provide nutrition, health, wellness, counseling/guidance, and mental and emotional health supports.
  • Increased focus in recent years on Extended Learning Time has drawn much-needed attention to the large gaps that open up in the hours before and after school and over summers as a result of disparities in the kinds of enriching out-of-school opportunities wealthier students enjoy. A reauthorized ESEA must ensure sufficient, quality time for all students to learn in creative, engaging ways while protecting teachers’ time to plan, prepare, and collaborate.
  • With a large and growing proportion of U.S. children facing significant barriers to their education outside the classroom, effective accountability measures must be structured, aligned, and implemented in a way that leverages all the tools needed to improve their odds of success. Given the substantial role played by outside-of-school factors, failing to make accountability multidimensional is inadequate to ensure equity because it presents a distorted picture of what contributes to student achievement.
  • Assessments can and should play important roles, but they should be designed and implemented to support the improvement of instruction and education, and their misuse and abuse must be stopped.

Regarding the first principle, there is some added support for prekindergarten programs in the draft framework being sent to the conference committee. While we ultimately must ensure that every child has access to high-quality early childhood learning experiences, and that this assurance is embedded within our education policies, this represents a promising first step.

On the topic of extended learning time, we are glad, too, to see support for the 21st Century Schools program and for community schools–type approaches to wrapping supports around students and their families. Again, however, fully addressing the poverty-related needs of students will require significantly more funding and the incorporation of these strategies as core to education policy.

Finally, ratcheting back the misuse of state standardized tests in teacher evaluations represents a positive move toward a more holistic and supports-based approach to accountability. But properly supporting disadvantaged students, which many schools have historically failed to do, will require state and local jurisdictions to use a much broader set of data to understand and target supports to student needs, and to help teachers and school leaders improve their craft.

The signatories to the open letter represent a broad spectrum of education policy expertise: scholars and researchers, civil rights leaders, teacher leaders, and superintendents of school districts across the country. We see real promise in the framework currently on the table, along with real room for improvement, and for a more robust conversation about what our flagship federal education law, in conjunction with better state and local policies, could, and should, deliver.

Finalizing ESEA reauthorization is an important first step.


Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign.