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Letter to the HELP Committee on ESEA Hearing

November 07, 2011

Dear Senator:
 
As you prepare for tomorrow’s hearing on ESEA reauthorization, we would like to share with you NEA’s views on selected provisions of the Committee bill as marked-up last month.  Attached for your information is a list of issues that NEA’s members believe will be positive changes to current law, as well as those we hope will be improved or corrected.  We understand the wide range of views that exist regarding the appropriate federal role in education.   
 
We are not unaware of the challenge lawmakers face in attempting to fix the flaws of No Child Left Behind, while preserving the goal that states, school districts, and schools must improve educational opportunities, services, and outcomes for all students.  We believe that the federal role in education must strike the right balance between civil rights enforcer and helpful partner to states in their efforts to transform public education in a way that acknowledges that we all—lawmakers at every level of government, administrators, educators, parents, and students themselves—must be accountable  for success.
 
The members of the National Education Association have fought for equity of resources, educational opportunities, and services for students since our founding in 1857.  We have a long and proud history of fighting in the courts, in the streets, in state capitols, and at the federal level for opportunities for all children regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, zip code, among other issues.  That is why it is particularly difficult to see the tension currently playing out within this ESEA reauthorization regarding the appropriate role for the federal government in ensuring that we prepare all students to be well-rounded citizens who are also able to compete in a 21st century globally competitive economy.
 
We believe a new ESEA law must continue to uphold the federal government’s responsibility to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students and must continue to hold school districts accountable for improving results for all students.  To this end, we strongly support the continued disaggregation of data to shine a light on gaps in student opportunities, resources, and achievement.  However, across the political spectrum we can all agree that No Child Left Behind’s undue emphasis on federally mandated, narrow student assessments as the primary accountability yardstick has led to mislabeling and sanctioning schools based on test scores and providing inadequate funding and support for schools that are struggling.   In fact, the majority of lawmakers, when discussing NCLB’s flaws, now refer to its Achilles heel as a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that doesn’t adequately take into account the wide range of circumstances within our public education system.  

Reauthorization of ESEA should focus on creating meaningful, workable systems to identify areas of need and target resources accordingly to close achievement gaps.  This means focusing limited federal resources and targeting interventions to those schools with the lowest achievement and greatest needs, as provided in the Committee mark.  We do not believe that states and school districts, under the Committee bill's construct, would be responsible ONLY for addressing a limited number of schools.  We would hope that the clear language of the Committee’s reported bill regarding state accountability systems that apply to all students—and strong oversight and enforcement by the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education should this bill become law—will be complied with for the benefit of all students across the country.   Nor do we believe that the Committee bill represents accountability with no end-point goal.  To the contrary, the desired goal is as it should be:  that all students graduate from our public schools ready for college or a career. 
 
We also believe the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that states are remedying fundamental disparities in educational opportunities.  That is why we supported the closing of the comparability loophole, which has served as an impediment toward getting the most experienced teachers to students who need them most.   And, that is why we support a requirement that states develop equity and adequacy plans to remedy opportunity gaps in other key learning factors.  These are consistent with the important civil rights enforcement role that Department of Education can and should fulfill as we monitor trends in our public education system.  We do not believe, however, that the federal government’s role should extend to core personnel decisions—such as the terms and conditions of employment or performance evaluations—that are made at the local level between public school employees and their employers—school districts.  Some in Congress have recently stated that the federal government must mandate requirements for teacher evaluations.  Over the last few years, we have seen historic changes at the state and local level regarding teacher evaluation and accountability.    We question why the federal government would need to legislate in an arena where so much activity is taking place, particularly given the complexity of fifty different sets of employment laws and the existence of over 15,000 school districts across the country.  
 
We are on the eve of an historic ballot measure election in Ohio, where voters will decide whether or not public employees, including educators, should have a right to a voice in their workplace through the ability to collectively bargain.  Therefore, the members of the National Education Association are naturally on high alert when any proposal surfaces at any level of government that would impede educators’ ability to speak up about the teaching and learning conditions they face, helpful strategies to turn around struggling schools, as well as the very terms and conditions of their employment.  Educators must have the right to speak up for and help design and implement the systems needed to ensure student success.
 
We were pleased with a number of changes made to the bill before and during mark-up, including:

  • Adoption of an amendment by Senator Alexander to provide additional flexibility in helping turnaround struggling schools.  This amendment recognized that states and districts must have the ability to design turnaround approaches that will work for their specific schools and students.  We know firsthand from the work we are doing in our Priority Schools Campaign to lead school turnaround efforts that every school circumstance is different and that no regimented, narrow list of solutions will work in the multitude of school settings across the country. 
  • Changes in the managers’ amendment that recognized that the federal government’s role is limited in the arena of teacher evaluations.  This is a critical change reflecting the fact that crafting a national evaluation system that works in all settings in a nation as diverse as the United States would be impossible. 
  • Adoption of an amendment by Senator Franken to ensure that school districts will not force teachers to transfer to other schools to meet requirements of “comparability” among schools.   The equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers can and should be accomplished through positive and collaborative changes in school climate and leadership, providing more support for educators rather than less, and ensuring that parental and community engagement is fostered by school leadership, staff, and local leaders.

Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done if students and educators are to see real, meaningful, and workable change from current law.  In particular:

  • We were disappointed that the Committee failed to adopt an amendment by Senator Isakson that would have allowed testing of students with disabilities using assessments deemed appropriate by the IEP team.  We believe the IEP plan team, along with the parent or guardian, is in the best position to determine the best tools to assess a student’s academic achievement and growth.  Again, we understand the fears that have been raised about not wanting to return to the days when students with disabilities were too often treated inequitably.  We do not believe, however, that arbitrary assessment caps that have inadequate grounding in research as to their effectiveness are the appropriate way to address this concern.  We believe it is incumbent upon every educator, every administrator, and every parent to know and understand the breadth of both IDEA and ESEA and take full advantage their combined power to require us all to serve every student with a disability in the best, most robust way possible.
  • We were disappointed that the Committee rejected several amendments by Senator Sanders designed to ensure the highest quality educators for all students.  We believe it is critical that all teachers be well-prepared before entering the classroom and that new teachers have strong mentoring and support from veteran peers in their early years.  Teaching in today’s public education system requires an unprecedented level of knowledge of content, brain development/child development, classroom management skills, parental engagement  techniques, English language acquisition, and the wide range of disabilities that exist today, in addition to advanced instructional techniques and pedagogy.  The  mastery and demonstration of this knowledge and these skills should be done on the front end of the “teacher pipeline” prior to an individual stepping in front of a classroom as a teacher of record. 
    In addition, as we highlighted prior to the mark-up, we continue to be concerned that the bill includes no requirement for multiple measures of school or   student performance and continues the focus on standardized testing in narrow subject areas.

We thank you for your consideration of our views on these very important issues.  We look forward to continuing these discussions with the Committee as the legislation moves forward. 

Sincerely,

Kim Anderson    
Director, Center for Advocacy

Mary Kusler
Manager, Federal Advocacy