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Go Big on Education

Five Big Ideas for the Senate to Put in Federal Education Law

Jeremy Ayers outlines five big policy ideas the Senate should put in its bill to ensure the next ESEA is big and bold enough to improve the education system and our economy.

A teacher leads a global history class in New York City. The next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should authorize competitive innovation grants  to improve the effectiveness of school personnel already in the  classroom, as well as those currently being trained. (AP/Richard Drew)
A teacher leads a global history class in New York City. The next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should authorize competitive innovation grants to improve the effectiveness of school personnel already in the classroom, as well as those currently being trained. (AP/Richard Drew)

Next week the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. ESEA should have been updated back in 2007, so the Senate’s action on a comprehensive reauthorization is welcome—particularly in contrast to the House’s piecemeal approach. But in an antigovernment climate where many conservatives decry federal involvement in education (or any issue), the committee may be tempted to take the wrong approach and pass a modest bill.

The stakes are too high for our students and our economic growth to tinker around the edges of education reform. Only 35 percent of eighth graders read at grade level, most high schools graduate little more than two-thirds of students on time, and only one-fourth of high school graduates are prepared for college.[1] Yet reducing the nation’s dropout rate by half in 2010 would add $5.6 billion in increased spending, $19 billion in increased home sales, 54,000 new jobs, $9.6 billion in economic growth, and $713 million in increased tax revenue.[2] And raising achievement levels in the United States to those of other industrialized nations could increase our GDP by $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion.[3]

Below are five big policy ideas the Senate should put in its bill to ensure the next ESEA is big and bold enough to improve the education system, and thus our nation’s economy. The Center for American Progress laid out these ideas in detail in June of this year as a way the federal government can support and encourage education reform across the country.

Focus on results: Hold all schools accountable for all students

Congress made investments in education for far too long without documenting or demanding results in terms of better student achievement. The nation cannot afford to provide resources to schools without requiring serious improvement in student outcomes—the economic and social costs of poor education are too high.

The next version of ESEA should hold all schools accountable for making measureable and significant progress in student learning, graduation rates, and the extent to which students leave school prepared for college and the workplace. The Senate should require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, set annual goals for improvement in student learning, annually assess student growth and achievement, and categorize all schools based on their performance. States should reward schools that make progress and support or intervene in some way in all schools that are underperforming.

Build school talent: Improve the effectiveness of teachers and principals

Effective teachers and principals are critical to raising achievement and closing longstanding gaps between students. Therefore, we must ensure all students have the strong teachers and school leaders that they need and deserve if our nation is to remain a global economic leader.

The next version of ESEA should authorize competitive innovation grants to improve the effectiveness of school personnel already in the classroom, as well as those currently being trained. States, districts, and preparation programs should have to track their graduates’ effectiveness in the classroom and be held accountable for the results in exchange for receiving federal dollars.

The Senate should also ensure states develop guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation systems so that teachers and principals have better information about their progress. Schools would then have the tools to make personnel decisions—hiring, recruiting, granting tenure, providing professional development, and ensuring low-income students and students of color get their fair share of good educators—based on results rather than on best guesses.

Maximize the money: Make school funding more fair and productive

Many people think poor and minority students—and schools with lots of these students—get more money than others. But the opposite is true, and federal policy is partly to blame. In addition to rectifying this inequity, the Senate should address other glaring problems in ESEA’s main funding stream, Title I.

The next version of ESEA should make funding more fair and efficient. First, a federal loophole allows districts to allocate funds to schools based on average costs of teachers, programs, and expenditures, rather than actual dollars (see nifty video explanation here). The Senate should close this loophole by requiring districts to report their funding practices in real dollars, including teacher salaries, and then ensure low-income schools get extra resources because they have extra challenges.

Second, due to cumbersome allocation formulas, some states and districts receive a disproportionate amount of money, while others get less than their fair share. The formulas should be revised to ensure a more equitable distribution of funds. Thirdly, overly burdensome regulations discourage states and districts from using federal money in comprehensive or innovative ways. Those rules should be streamlined to promote comprehensive reform while still ensuring funds are spent equitably.

Fix what’s broken: Turn around low-performing schools

Americans across the country are realizing that not all schools, even their neighborhood schools, are getting the results we need. Federal policy can help by supporting states and districts that commit to effective reforms that turn around low-performing schools.

The next version of ESEA should target the lowest-performing schools in each state for intense support and intervention. The Senate should maximize federal money by ensuring states prioritize school districts that show willingness to reform their struggling schools, implement effective turnaround strategies, track school progress, and hold schools accountable for results.

The Senate would also be wise to support efforts to increase student learning time for both academics and enrichment activities, especially for struggling students who need extra opportunities to catch up. It should also consider supporting wraparound services that address nonacademic issues, such as health or nutritional needs, so that students can fully focus on schoolwork.

Prepare for tomorrow: Invest in innovation

Clearly the current approach to education is insufficient when large percentages of students are not mastering basic skills or leaving high school not ready for college or the workplace. Educators should have the opportunity to assess these challenges; to devise smarter, more effective solutions; and then to be held accountable for the results they deliver. That is the essence of education innovation.

The next version of ESEA should authorize competitive programs such as Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation Fund, or the Teacher Incentive Fund, to spur states and districts to innovation. At least 10 states changed their laws to make themselves more competitive for Race to the Top before money was awarded, and 34 states in total reformed their education laws or policies to prepare for the first two rounds of the competition. Also, the Senate should find ways to grant school leaders greater autonomy over budgeting, staffing, and use of time—while holding them accountable for results—so they have the freedom to try different approaches to improve schools.


These ideas run contrary to those on the far right who have embraced a cut-and-run strategygut education funding and roll back federal involvement in education. We believe this to be an approach that shirks federal responsibility in exchange for a cheap return to greater state and local control, and likely inaction on education reform.

Instead, the federal government has an historic and vital role to play in promoting equity and opportunity, high standards and strong outcomes, and efficient use of public funds. A forward-looking, forward-moving federal government can leverage its modest contribution to education budgets to spur education reform.

As the Senate rolls up its sleeves and gets serious about reauthorization, we stand ready to work with them—and anyone in Congress willing to go big—to pass an education bill that enhances our nation’s schools in bold and progressive ways.


[1]. “Grade 8 National Results,” available at http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2009/nat_g8.asp?tab_id=tab2&subtab_id=Tab_3#tabsContainer (last accessed June 2011); “Diplomas Count 2010: Graduating by the Numbers: Putting Data to Work for Student Success,” Education Week, June 10, 2010; ACT, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2010” (2010).

[2]. Alliance for Excellent Education, “Saving Now and Saving Later: How High School Reform Can Reduce the Nation’s Wasted Remediation Dollars” (2011).

[3]. McKinsey & Company, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” (2009).

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Jeremy Ayers

Associate Director, Federal Education Programs