An Aggressive Blueprint for Targeted Reform

The Obama Administration Presents a Cohesive Agenda for Education Reform

The Obama administration presents a more cohesive agenda for education reform, writes Cynthia Brown, and it’s one that follows many CAP recommendations.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks after a discussion with 6th grade students at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia on January 19, 2010. (AP/Alex Brandon)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks after a discussion with 6th grade students at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia on January 19, 2010. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The Obama administration over the weekend released a blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most recently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The proposal builds on important aspects of NCLB, but more importantly corrects its shortcomings and aggressively moves forward with a more targeted and cohesive education reform agenda.

The blueprint continues with principles and funding opportunities that the Obama administration initially layed out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and fiscal year 2011 budget. It also proposes a much more sensible accountability structure that delineates among schools with different levels of student progress, takes a major step toward greater funding equity among schools within districts, and promotes major investments in innovation and experimentation that are crucial if this country is going to move beyond the indefensible status quo in our public education system.

Several aspects of the blueprint reflect policy recommendations that the Center for American Progress has made in recent years. The administration’s recommendations begin, for example, with a call for all states to establish college- and career-ready standards, building on actions by the nation’s governors to push for rigorous common standards throughout the country and better assessments to measure student progress. CAP’s 2005 education task force report, "Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation," calls for the adoption of such national standards and we are impressed with the substantial movement toward that goal. The administration is proposing that all students are prepared for college and a career by 2020.

High standards and sound testing are fundamental to the design of a workable system of accountability to hold educators responsible for student learning. And the administration is taking a much more targeted approach than NCLB to holding low-performing schools and districts accountable for student achievement. Substantial amounts of funding will be available for comprehensive interventions in those schools showing the least improvement, but only if districts employ one of four prescribed models: transformation, turnaround, restart, or school closure.

Somewhat less low-performing schools, districts, and states and those with large and lingering achievement gaps will need to take specific actions as well. Those who are progressing at a steady, if not an ideal, pace will have greater flexibility and those who are most successful will be rewarded financially and identified publicly. Districts, states, and the federal government will ultimately make decisions on the basis of student growth year to year for five categories of performance—performance distinctions that were unrecognized under NCLB.

The administration’s new plan takes into account success stories of turning around low-performing schools serving large numbers of low-income students by promoting the adoption of strategies for expanded learning time and establishing community schools. Expanded learning time schools ensure that all students in a school benefit from increased time for academic and enrichment opportunities, and community schools stay open for extended hours, offer students and families access to important social and health services, and help meet students’ unmet academic and "nonacademic" needs.

The administration’s education blueprint would help facilitate these programs by redesigning the 21st Century Learning Communities program to ensure that those schools with the students most in need of extra time for learning and enrichment are more likely to get the longer school days and years, community support services, and afterschool programs that make much more likely their school success.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the blueprint is the administration’s vigorous push to get effective teachers and leaders into every school. Central to that is a comprehensive approach to preparing, recruiting, retaining, and compensating teachers and principals and distributing them equitably to high-poverty and low-poverty schools alike. The administration has made strong proposals requiring movement toward identifying and measuring teachers’ performance, and designing and implementing much better teacher evaluation systems, two topics that CAP has written about extensively.

The most promising of the administration’s blueprint proposals are the Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund and the Teacher and Leader Pathways Program. The Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund would offer competitive grants to states and school districts to implement reforms that recruit, develop, and retain effective teachers and principals in high-needs schools. The program builds on the promising model of the Teacher Incentive Fund, which CAP has supported and frequently written about and importantly encourages states and districts to invest in better human capital systems for teachers and schools leaders.

The Teacher and Leader Pathways program is another critical component of the administration’s plan to build an effective school workforce since it helps to increase the supply of effective teachers and leaders that meet the needs of school districts. CAP has advocated for the expansion of high-quality alternative certification programs through a greater focus on program quality, innovation, and replicating effective programs.

It will be virtually impossible for the Obama administration to realize its objectives if we do not change the ways schools are funded in this country. Compared with almost every other developed country in the world, the United States has the most decentralized system of school governance and funds its schools much more inequitably. U.S. schools enrolling the highest numbers of low-income students receive the least financial resources. The federal government, which provides 9 to 10 percent of total education funding, cannot financially offset the unfairness in the way state and local education dollars are distributed.

But Congress could require that those funds be equitably distributed before federal funds are added for high-poverty schools’ needs. And the administration does just that in its blueprint proposal: "Over time, districts will be required to ensure that their high-poverty schools receive state and local funding levels (for personnel and relevant nonpersonnel expenditures) comparable to those received by low-poverty schools." CAP has been a strong proponent of closing the longstanding comparability loophole in Title I and enthusiastically welcomes this proposal.

Some education groups are critical of the administration’s new emphasis on competitive programs to support innovations and experimentation with new approaches for building a 21st century system of public schooling. They charge that it ignores the traditional formula programs in ESEA. But for the most part that is not true. The administration’s FY 2011 budget proposals make clear that Title I formula grants will continue as will most of the Title II funds for teacher professional development and class-size reduction and Title III funds for programs for English language learners, among others.

But the nation’s public school system must move substantially beyond its previous structure, which no longer produces a workforce prepared for the internationally competitive economy of this century. Better ways of educating require new designs and carefully evaluated implementation trials to get more effective teachers and leaders into every classroom and school, and change the way classrooms, schools, districts, and state education agencies are configured and operate.

The blueprint continues investments in competitive grants begun in ARRA such as the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, and it proposes new ones for teaching and school leadership that encourage imaginative, entrepreneurial, and courageous educators to try new ways of doing things. If successful, these programs should actually result in the restructuring and improvement of existing programs supported by the formula grants.

The administration’s blueprint for ESEA is promising, and Congress should take up its consideration in the next few months. Yet if the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act legislation passed by the House of Representatives does not become law or is shrunk so that its early learning and high school programs are eliminated, the administration and Congress should push for their inclusion in a reauthorized ESEA.

The administration has taken important steps towards reform, but we believe they should do more in some areas. In particular, it should collapse the four formulas driving Title I grants to school districts into a single, simpler, and fairer formula. It is never easy for Congress to revise formulas, but we have provided a vision for tackling this challenge, which is all the more important because the Title I formulas are used by many other federal programs. Hopefully Congress will choose to address this issue.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Cynthia G. Brown

Former Senior Fellow