Getting back to the real purpose of ESEA

by AFT President Randi Weingarten

All signs point to Congress reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the senior senator from Tennessee and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has made it his No. 1 priority. Every education group is taking it seriously, and position statements are flying around Washington, D.C. We’ve done the same. However, on Wednesday, we released a statement of joint principles with the Center for American Progress on what we believe is needed when Congress takes on this task.

As soon as we released our proposal, people began misrepresenting us and it. The “test and punish” crowd—from Bellwether to The New Teacher Project to, sadly, even Education Trust—immediately attacked, calling our position “dumb” and claiming it would undermine accountability. And on the other side, we’re being accused of selling out teachers and students and changing our position on testing.

Let’s start here: All students deserve a high-quality public education, and teachers need the resources and support that will allow them to teach.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ESEA in 1965, it was a centerpiece of the War on Poverty. It provided funding that is critical to many of the schools where our members teach. The money funds vital programs—including support for salaries for paraprofessionals, lowering class sizes and helping English language learners.

The law was designed to ensure that every school got the resources to teach students, particularly in neighborhoods or districts that were not wealthy. And the requirements preventing states from taking this money away from poor students have been a critical safeguard, particularly in recessions or when state funds are thin.

Since the last major overhaul—known as No Child Left Behind—the core principles of equity and opportunity in ESEA have been overwhelmed by a devastating obsession with high-stakes testing.

Over the last 13 years, we’ve seen the ever-more corrosive effects of high-stakes testing. In this regard, No Child Left Behind has failed to accomplish its goals, and its only real legacy is a standardized testing regime that’s squeezing the joy of learning from our schools. Now, parents, educators and legislators are standing up to ask for change.

Over recent months, we’ve engaged members, parents and public education allies on the path forward. It seemed that the loudest voices in this debate were calling for continuing the current “test everything” system, or saying we should get rid of all federal involvement and leave everything up to the states. But we heard something different when we talked to our members and the parents of our students.

Neither of those options is best for our students, educators or schools. The current system based on high-stakes testing—driven by NCLB, Race to the Top and the federal waiver process—is untenable, creating a toxic environment that’s robbing our students and teachers.

But we also know that educators need data to inform instruction, and our colleagues in the civil rights community will fight for the information necessary to counteract the history of so many poor children and children of color being left behind.

Here’s what we came together with CAP to propose. We must return to a focus on ensuring every student has the chance to attend a great public school. And here’s how we believe we can do that.

Were calling for a robust accountability system that uses multiple measures—which could include factors like whether students have access to art, music and physical education, and whether they have support from specialists like school librarians, nurses and counselors. Such a system should allow for ideas like portfolios rather than bubble tests. We recommend a limited use of testing to measure progress—including what to do if there isn’t progress—through grade-span testing. That means instead of annual high-stakes tests, we’d have tests once between third and fifth grades, once between sixth and eighth grades, and once in high school.

We’re calling on Congress to end the use of annual tests for high-stakes consequences. Let’s instead use annual assessments to give parents and teachers the information they need to help students grow, while providing the federal government with information to direct resources to the schools and districts that need extra support.

The federal government should not be the human resources department for our schools. It should not be in the business of regulating teacher evaluation from Washington, D.C. Race to the Top and the Department of Education’s NCLB waivers have made high-stakes tests and value-added measurement the centerpieces of teacher evaluation. That policy has been misguided and ineffective, as teachers and parents know firsthand.

This summer, our members sent us off from our convention in Los Angeles to change this federal and state accountability system. They demanded we fight high-stakes testing and champion instead a robust, multiple-measure accountability system that will ensure no single test holds the future of schools or teachers and that will reduce pressure on students.

What we have announced with CAP this week does exactly that. Not in a vacuum, but tailored to fix the fixation in federal law and policy on high-stakes testing. That’s why people who have championed the status quo, like The New Teacher Project (an organization started by Michelle Rhee), are fighting against us.

These principles set out a clear framework for ensuring that ESEA stays true to its root focus on equity and civil rights; dials back the destructive impact of high-stakes testing; and sets forth big, bold ideas that will help all kids succeed.

This debate has become increasingly polarized, especially around equity, teacher professionalism and testing. But these principles put equity front and center; propose the better use of testing; and end the fixation on the high stakes and sanctions that are eclipsing the purpose of ESEA, narrowing the curriculum, and taking the love out of learning and the innovation out of teaching.

The ESEA was a bipartisan solution to address poverty and ensure equity in our schools. When NCLB injected testing and sanctions into our system, it was a bipartisan act. We need a bipartisan solution this year—one that returns ESEA to its original purpose and that ends the test-and-punish obsession started with NCLB.