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Statement of Dennis Van Roekel on ESEA Reauthorization

March 9, 2010

Submitted to the
Health, Education, Labor,
and Pensions Committee

United States Senate

Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Enzi, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the essential role of preparing students for success in the 21st Century and how the Elementary and Secondary Education Act must be redesigned to achieve this goal. I commend the Committee for convening a hearing on this very important issue.

As a 23-year veteran classroom math teacher, I have the great honor of being here today representing 3.2 million members who all believe in the power of education to transform lives. NEA members include teachers and education support professionals, higher education faculty and staff, Department of Defense schools’ educators, students in colleges of teacher education, and retired educators across the country.

Today, I will talk about K-12 education in the U.S. economy. I will also present NEA’s views on revitalizing the public education system, redesigning schools and revamping accountability systems for 21st century learning, and ensuring sustainability of public education.

The public education system is critical to democracy. Its purpose is to:

However, today, students’ success in school depends in large part on the zip code where they live and the educators to whom they are assigned. There are great teachers and education support professionals at work every day in this country who show up excited to teach students and feed them nutritious meals, help them travel safely to and from school, and make sure they attend schools that are safe, clean, and in good repair.

Students who struggle the most in impoverished communities too often don’t attend safe schools with reliable heat and air conditioning; too often do not have safe passage to and from school; and far too often do not have access to great teachers on a regular and consistent basis. We must address these opportunity gaps if we are to strengthen our economy, prepare our students to compete, and build the educated workforce necessary.

What we have today is an interdependent, rapidly changing world, and our public school system must adapt to the needs of the new global economy. Every student will need to graduate from high school, pursue postsecondary educational options, and focus on a lifetime of learning because many of tomorrow’s jobs have not even been conceived of today.

I think we can all agree that our public schools need a wholesale transformation with the resources to match our commitment. We cannot leave a generation of students behind by continuing to deny them the best education this country has to offer. Instead of being first in the world in the number of inmates, let’s work to be first in the world in the number of high school and college graduates.

As President John F. Kennedy said in 1961 and it still holds true now: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. Our requirements for world leadership, our hopes for economic growth, and the demands of citizenship itself in an era such as this all require the maximum development of every young American’s capacity. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”

Simply put, we need a new vision of 21st century learning. My testimony today will lay out the inextricable link between investment in education and a strong, competitive nation and will discuss how we must approach ESEA reauthorization from an economic development framework.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out that the best laid plans for 21st century learning will not succeed without a true partnership of change between educators, school boards and school districts. Simply put, reform in schools does not succeed without true collaboration among all those involved in creating, funding, and delivering quality education services to our students. We have to all shoulder the responsibility and hard work it will take to be sure schools improve dramatically, particularly for students who need the most. And we cannot continue to shun proven school improvement models because they don’t generate as much press coverage as others.

We know schools improve when educators are respected, treated as professionals, and given the tools they need and the opportunity to improve as a team for the benefit of their students. For example, Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland is a high-poverty, previously low performing school.  In April 2001, all staff at Broad Acres Elementary School had the option to make a three-year commitment to the school and its students. This commitment included working the equivalent of 15 extra days paid by a supplement to be used to extend the workday every Wednesday until 6:00 p.m. for planning sessions, study groups, and examining student work. Sixty percent of the staff elected to stay. According to the school district’s website, students met the proficiency standards for adequate yearly progress in math and reading for the most recent year available. The student body is 99 percent minority and 88 percent qualify for free and reduced price meals. Furthermore, at Broad Acres, 30 percent of the teachers have more than 15 years of experience, 52.7 percent have 5-15 years, and only 16.4 percent have less than 5 years of experience. It appears from those numbers that Broad Acres has successfully retained experienced educators and probably also attracted newer ones who are staying.

K-12 Education in the U.S. Economy

Every child and young adult has surely heard the following: “To get ahead in life, get an education.” This is a belief often repeated among noted economists and education experts, and is borne out by numerous studies. As Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner has said, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be “education. … Education made America great; neglect of education can reverse the process.” Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has also stated, “The best approach is to give people access to first-rate education so they can acquire the skills needed to advance.”

Besides the benefits to individuals, society as a whole also enjoys a financial return on the investment in higher education. In addition to widespread productivity increases, the higher earnings of educated workers generate higher tax payments at the local, state, and federal levels. Consistent productive employment reduces dependence on public income-transfer programs and all workers, regardless of education level, earn more when there are more college graduates in the labor force. (Education Pays, The College Board, 2007.)

The provision of a quality K–12 public education plays a crucial role in the individual and economy- wide acquisition of “human capital.” The economic payoff to individuals of increased schooling is higher earnings throughout their lifetime—a market-based individual benefit. In addition, a considerable number of benefits from a quality K–12 public education—the spillover effects extend beyond individuals. Wolfe and Haveman (2002), economists noted for their efforts to put a monetary value on some of education’s spillover effects, argue that the value of these spillovers for individuals and the economy is significant and that it may be as large as education’s market-based individual benefits. For example:

Investing in education will help prevent harmful cuts in programs, preserve jobs and reduce unemployment, thereby strengthening state and local economies.

It is clear that when faced with the choice of (1) increasing revenue statewide to continue supporting the provision of quality public K–12 education or (2) cutting support statewide to public K–12 education to forestall a tax increase, a state’s long term economic interests are better served by increasing revenue. (NEA Working Paper, K-12 Education in the U.S. Economy: Its impact on Economic Development, Earnings, and Housing Values. Thomas L. Hungerford and Robert W. Wassmer, April 2004). Yet, according to NEA’s own research, almost no states are currently funding their educational systems adequately and most states are around 25 percent short of funding their systems at a level adequate

These findings take on a particular significance in the current economy. State budgets typically lag any national economic recovery by a year or longer and, as a result, budget gaps will continue into fiscal year 2011 and beyond. In fact, the aggregate budget gap for fiscal year 2012 is expected to be larger than the 2011 gap, largely due to diminishing federal stimulus funds. For many states, 2011 will mark the third consecutive year in which budget balancing actions will be needed to close sizable budget gaps. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) just issued Policies for Increasing Economic Growth and Employment in 2010 and 2011, “Many states have experienced a high degree of fiscal stress and are expected to have large budget gaps in the next few years. Eighteen states have budget gaps larger than 20 percent of general fund expenditures…”

The federal government, which, unlike most state governments, is not prohibited from running an annual budget deficit, is best suited to help state and local governments maintain educational funding during cyclical downturns. According to CBO, “Federal aid that was provided promptly would probably have a significant effect on output and employment in 2010 and 2011. Such aid could lead to fewer layoffs, more pay raises, more government  purchases of goods and services, increases in state safety-net programs, tax cuts, and savings for future use.”

The evidence is clear that investment in education is essential for a strong economy and a well- prepared workforce, and that the federal government must step up at this critical juncture. This sort of investment in education as a means to stimulating economic growth is not unprecedented. In the last century, both the G.I. bill and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which appropriated $1 billion dollars for science education, helped propelled economic growth.

Leaving states to cut education more deeply to balance their budgets without additional federal aid is short-sighted. Lessening the quality of education a student receives today as a result may be irreversible. Long-term productivity growth and a higher standard of living are dependent on an educated workforce. Investing in education is investing in the future growth of the country.

Additional funding for public primary and secondary schools, however, will not generate greater student achievement unless the funds are used wisely. The remainder of this testimony will focus on how we must retool our education system for the 21st Century.

Revitalizing the Public Education System

It is important to recall that 1965 was one of the notable years in the history of education in America. That year, as part of his War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce inequity by directing resources to poor and minority children and signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) to provide more opportunities and access to postsecondary opportunities for lower and middle-income families. “Poverty has many roots,” Johnson said, “but the taproot is ignorance.”

Poverty is still an issue in this country, and unfortunately we still have schools that lack resources, committed and effective leadership, and enough great teachers and education support professionals to reach every student. Schools in struggling communities too often have high dropout rates, and the cycle of poverty continues.

The federal government must be engaged in these issues, offering the only remaining leverage point to hold states accountable for remedying these untenable inequities. Later in this testimony, I will address our recommendation that the federal government require states to put together adequacy and equity plans that outline how they will address these inequities.

NEA also stands ready to help do something about it—we must break this cycle of poverty. And we are ready to work with our partners, community by community, to revitalize the public school system and redesign schools for the 21st century.

Redesigning Schools for 21st Century Learning

To be clear, however, educating every student so they can succeed in this country is not enough today. We live in a global society and our students will have to compete with people from across the world.

We need a world class education system that will prepare students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and globally competent. To prosper, graduates must learn languages, understand the world, and be able to compete globally, and we must benchmark our educational goals against other nations with strong education systems. If we collectively work toward that outcome, it is expected that the United States gross domestic product will be more than one-third higher in the next 70 years.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must transform the system by demanding sweeping changes that changes the dynamic—significantly higher student achievement and significantly higher graduation rates for all groups of students.

Our vision of what great public schools need and should provide acknowledges that the world is changing and public education is changing too. NEA’s Great Public Schools (GPS) criteria require not only the continued commitment of all educators, but the concerted efforts of policymakers at all levels of government. These criteria will prepare all students for the future with 21st century skills; create enthusiasm for learning and engaging all students in the classroom; close achievement gaps and increase achievement for all students; and ensure that all educators have the resources and tools they need to get the job done.

The criteria are:

NEA is part of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills -- a unique public-private organization formed in 2002 to create a successful model of learning for this millennium that incorporates 21st century skills into our system of education. The members of this Partnership believe that policymakers today have an opportunity—and an obligation—to move forward with a new direction for teaching and learning in the 21st century (The Road to 21st Century Learning: A Policymakers Guide to 21st Century Skills, Partnership for 21st Century Skills).

As laid out in the Partnership’s guidebook, The Road to 21st Century Learning: A Policymakers Guide to 21st Century Skills we see

“…a growing sense of urgency that the nation must act now to ensure that future generations of Americans can participate fully in the democratic process and the competitive global economy. Education is the foundation of democratic institutions, national security, economic growth and prosperity—and Americans cannot be complacent about improving the quality of education while competitors around the world are focusing on preparing students for the demands of this century. Only recently, the National Science Board, a federal advisory panel established by Congress, warned that the United States faces a major shortage of scientists because too few Americans are entering technical fields and because of the burgeoning ranks of highly competent scientists in other nations.

America risks losing its long-standing preeminence in science, engineering, technology, medicine, defense, business and even democracy. Without many more highly educated, highly skilled young people to carry the torch of inquiry, innovation and enterprise into the future, American dominance in these and other endeavors may fade…

There is broad consensus among educators, policymakers, business leaders and the public that schools today must do a better job of preparing young people for the challenges and expectations of communities, workplaces and higher education. Moreover, there is broad consensus about the knowledge and skills that are essential in the world today—and about the educational model that would make schools more relevant to the world again as well. This model emphasizes that students today need 21st century skills to guarantee America’s success tomorrow.”

Incremental changes yield incremental results. We must be bolder. A legislative tweak here or a regulatory toggle there will not lead to the fundamental and transformative changes in education we all seek. When we address change, we have to focus on significant and sustainable improvement in the rates of achievement for all students, but especially poor and minority students.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, integrating 21st century skills into K–12 education will empower students to learn and achieve in the core academic subjects at much higher levels. These skills, in fact, are the learning results that demonstrate that students are ready for the world. It is no longer enough to teach students the 3Rs; we must also teach the 4Cs of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

The Partnership calls on policymakers to imagine:

The Partnership members know that schools like these would be intellectually stimulating environments for students, teachers and administrators alike. Communities, employers, colleges and universities would be proud to welcome graduates of 21st century schools as the best prepared generation of citizens in American history. Reaching this vision is both important and possible—and it rests in the hands of policymakers today. It is this vision that Congress should have at the forefront as you reauthorize ESEA.

Revamping Accountability Systems for 21st Century Learning

In order to support public school improvement, states should have well-designed, transparent accountability systems that authentically assess both student learning and the conditions for its success, focus on closing achievement gaps, help to monitor progress, and identify successes and problems. We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success.

Achievement is much more than a test score, but if test scores are still the primary means of assessing student learning, they will continue to get undue weight. This is especially problematic because the tests widely in use in the United States, since NCLB narrowed the kinds of tests in use, typically focus on lower level skills of recall and recognition measured with multiple-choice items that do not adequately represent higher order thinking skills and performance. These are unlike the assessments that are used in high-achieving nations that feature essays, problem solutions, and open-ended items and more extensive tasks completed in classrooms as part of the assessment system. Achievement must take into account accomplishments that matter in the world outside of school, such as: Are you prepared for college or trade school? Can you form an opinion about something you read and justify your opinion? Are you creative? Are you inventive? Can you come up with a variety of solutions when you’re faced with a problem?

The federal government should use the ESEA implementation process, along with those associated with other federal programs, as mechanisms to incentivize states to devise comprehensive accountability systems that use multiple sources of evidence (including rich, meaningful, and authentic assessments, such as developing and/or using native language assessments as appropriate for students until they gain proficiency in English as determined by a valid and reliable measure). Instead of the current NCLB system that has resulted in a significant narrowing of the curriculum, state accountability systems should be designed to support efforts to guarantee every child has access to a rich, comprehensive curriculum. Such systems also should:

These state systems should evaluate school quality, as well as demonstrate improvements in student learning and closing of achievement, skills, and opportunity gaps among various groups of students. NEA has developed a comprehensive diagnostic tool called KEYS to assess school climate and success unsing a variety of indicators. There are also important and highly informative surveys such as the Teacher Working Conditions survey (pioneered by the Center for Teaching Quality) and the Gallup student survey that should inform states’ educational approach and accountability system as it relates to school system quality.

As states design these evaluation systems, the design team must include practicing educators to ensure that the system can yield clear and useful results. The results of these evaluations should not be used to punish and sanction schools. Results instead should be used to inform state, local, and classroom efforts to identify struggling students and problematic school programs so that states, districts, and educators can provide appropriate interventions and supports for improvement.

When considering individual schools that need significant reform or turn-around efforts, I strongly urge you not to be too prescriptive—as we believe the US Department of Education’s regulations in Race to the Top have been—in outlining specific methods of transforming schools. For example, we believe that turnaround assistance teams, such as those so successfully employed in North Carolina and Kentucky, serve as a highly effective, proven model of turning around low performing schools. We also believe that teacher-led schools have shown remarkable results in improving student learning. These two models were not inlcuded in the RTTT rules as allowable turn-around approaches. Such narrow prescriptions for school overhaul are predictive of one thing: diminished opportunity and tools to reach and turn around MORE schools.

Ensuring Sustainability of Public Education

Transforming America’s public schools is a daunting task. It will take the concerted efforts of all stakeholders and the commitment to continue the effort until every student has access to a great public school.

At the core of this effort is ensuring the fiscal stability of the educational system so that the energy of stakeholders can be spent on how best to serve students.

As we have said in the past, the federal government should require states, as part of their application for federal education funds under ESEA, to develop “Adequacy and Equity Plans.” Through these plans, states will demonstrate where there are disparities in educational tools and services, as well as opportunities and resources. The plans will outline steps underway or planned to remedy the disparities. The process of developing the plans should bring together stakeholders within the state to devise a plan to meet adequacy and equity goals, and for the first time significant federal resources could serve as a powerful incentive that spurs action on this issue. This effort will help elevate the commitment to all students and build a shared understanding of what it will take to support them.

The design of federal approval and monitoring should be one that sensibly supports adjustments and flexibility as states pursue their goals and work toward eliminating disparities, without ever losing sight of the fact that the richest country in the world can provide every student with a quality education.


We know the road to economic stability and prosperity runs through our public schools, and we know that every student deserves the best we can offer. It is now time to deliver. NEA stands ready to do its part.

Thank you.