Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It is time for a new direction for federal education legislation

This letter was sent to the Congressional delegation representing the Owensboro Public Schools in support of the immediate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act now in Congress...

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Senator Paul and Congressman Guthrie:

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this spring, I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to join the chorus of voices in support of Alexander-Murray bill for reauthorization of ESEA and the elimination of the previous version No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  On behalf of the more than 5,000 students and 800 employees of the Owensboro Public Schools, I would like to offer a few reasons why reauthorization of ESEA is so critical.

  • No Child Left Behind is broken and is no longer a valid method of accountability for our nation’s public schools.
  • While waivers granted by the United States Department of Education have served as a stop-gap fix, our schools deserve stability and long term direction from Congress.
  • The waiver process has led to several unnecessary intrusions of the federal government into state oversight of education.  The best example of this is the inclusion of teacher evaluation into the waiver process despite such oversight never being a part of NCLB or any other federal education legislation.
  • While the Obama administration has been flexible in the implementation of waivers, it is possible that the next administration could eliminate waivers or put more conditions into the process that many states and local school districts would not be able to implement.

The biggest mistake of NCLB has been the creation of the culture of testing as the sole way to hold schools accountable.   We have no objection to accountability; in fact the occasional test can help students learn.  It is critical to hold students, teachers, schools and districts to high standards.  Yet there exists a multitude of recent evidence from groups such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Education Policy Center among others, demonstrating that the national testing mania ushered in with NCLB is doing more harm than good, particularly with minority and low income students. 

Our singular focus on test scores had negative consequences such as making schooling less creative, de-professionalizing teachers and teaching, and abandoning our past pursuit of learning that fully encompasses arts, music, social studies, and the sciences.   Fortunately the Owensboro Board of Education and the community in Owensboro have supported maintaining a strong focus on educating the “whole child” rather than teaching to the test.  This is evident each year in our school system with the excellence on display at the OPS Fine Arts Festival, performed on the stage of Owensboro’s RiverPark Center.

Last but certainly not least, adequate school funding remains a key unaddressed equity issue.  Students from low income families, now a majority is U.S. schools and 75 percent of the students served by the Owensboro Public Schools, live in conditions with few educational resources in their homes.  Their parents face unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, a lack of stable housing, and many other obstacles that seriously undermine children’s opportunities to learn. 

The original language of ESEA’s Title I program provided that each child living in poverty would received an additional 40 percent of the state’s average spending. Neither the federal government nor the states have ever appropriated sums of this magnitude.

Well-supported schools with substantial resources can make an important difference in these children’s lives, but it is unrealistic to expect schools to be the nation’s primary anti-poverty program, particularly with a sole emphasis on accountability and without adequate resource support.  Doing so is as unfair to children as it is to educators.  It is a false promise.  It is critical, in addition to providing adequate resources through the reauthorization of ESEA, that the safety net for the most vulnerable children in our society be protected.   

The Alexander-Murray reauthorization bill, filed in the Senate last week, addresses many of the deficiencies of No Child Left Behind.  The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 allows states to effectively shape policy with regard to assessment.   We applaud this approach as one of Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation that has tried unsuccessfully to focus on more performance-based and formative assessment models only to be turned away by regressive federal policies.

Additionally, the Every Child Achieves Act also provides support for funding to our most vulnerable students and takes an aggressive step forward in support of early childhood education. 

As a nation we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.   I urge you to support this effort of reauthorization.  I appreciate your continued voice in support of high quality education programs for all students in the Commonwealth and nationwide. 


Nicholas Brake, Ph.D.