A new law for a new age

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenThere’s broad consensus that we expect something fundamentally different of our schools today than we expected even a decade ago, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law.

Never before have we asked our teachers and administrators to see to it that every child who walks through the door master a set of rigorous standards designed with college and 21st-century careers in mind.

If we expect different outcomes from our schools, the federal government needs to develop a different set of rules by which our schools operate.

That’s why Chiefs for Change on Thursday released an outline that describes what we would like to see in a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the chief piece of federal legislation that governs our schools.

The guiding principles document from Chiefs for Change, a small group of reform-minded state education chiefs I joined several weeks ago, acknowledges that we can build off the important goals set a decade ago in the No Child Left Behind Act, but achieve them through different — and more effective — means.

At the core of a reauthorized ESEA must be a focus on students and learning. All schools — not just the lowest performing — must be held accountable for improving the performance of all students. And any accountability measurement must look at individual student performance and growth, not just average or overall achievement.

We need to identify, recognize and reward our best teachers, and provide incentives to encourage them to work with student populations with the greatest need.

A reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act needs to:

  • Demand rigorous standards and see to it that states stay true to them;
  • Hold schools accountable for meeting those expectations and allow states to execute aggressive turnaround plans when improvement is needed; and
  • Encourage states to reward teachers and administrators who are effective — even if such educators aren’t necessarily those who have earned advanced credentials — and offer them incentives to teach hard-to-teach populations.

The bottom line is that schools working hard to improve student performance need the flexibility to find what works. Plus, they need to be recognized for bringing about improvement, rather than penalized for falling short of meeting arbitrary increments of progress on standardized tests.