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Fixing federal law to solve a crisis

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot 07-19
After more than a decade working under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, we finally have a chance to reverse the law’s misguided federal mandates that dictate how states evaluate teachers and address struggling schools.

A bipartisan draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the original name of the federal education legislation, would bar the federal government from requiring states to use student test scores in teacher evaluations or forcing closure or other sanctions on struggling schools. It would also bar the federal government from mandating particular state curriculum standards. The bill is now under debate in the Senate after passing the Senate education committee 22-to-0.

After the bill passes the full Senate, our union will call on you to lobby your representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives as they debate this new bill that promises to restore the law’s original intent to combat poverty and educational inequity.

ESEA was first passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a package of reforms that also included Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and a series of measures aimed at reducing poverty.

At the heart of the law was Title I, which authorizes the federal government to direct substantial funds to support low-income schools, school districts and students in an effort to close the achievement gap. “Accountability,” in the original law, meant holding districts accountable for how they used Title I funds, not punishing schools and teachers for failing to meet impossible goals.

High-stakes testing was not part of Johnson’s vision for our schools; it was introduced by the Bush administration in 2001. And it has been a disaster.

In its original formulation, ESEA provided additional resources to struggling schools to support them as they worked to close the achievement gap. Today, NCLB punishes those same schools by taking away resources. The law has been distorted into a perverse system that withholds Title I funding from precisely those schools that need it most. It’s insanity.

Moreover, under the current law, it does not matter who sits in the governor’s office or in the state Legislature: high-stakes testing and punitive measures for struggling schools are mandated by the federal government. Nothing will change at the state level until we first fix the underlying problem: the federal law.

That’s why four months ago, with a deadlocked Congress desperate to pass legislation, we joined with our colleagues at the AFT to seize on the opportunity to fix ESEA. Changing the law is the only way to solve the crisis of testing and “accountability” we now face in New York State and across the country.

Testing itself isn’t the problem — it’s the type of tests we give and how we use the results that are the problems. The Every Child Achieves Act, as the draft reauthorization bill is called, maintains annual testing in math and reading for students in grades 3 through 8, but eliminates the high stakes and sanctions currently attached to it. Moving forward, the tests will be used the way standardized tests should be used: to collect data, assess our students’ progress and make sure that no child or group of children is left behind. Testing has a place in education and in our schools — but that place is to inform instruction, not punish teachers and schools.

Recent events here in New York provide a good example of what happens when politicians abuse their power to test students, using test results for political rather than educational ends.

More than 190,000 students across the state are estimated to have sat out this year’s state-mandated English language arts exam. That’s roughly 17 percent of the state’s 1.1 million students in grades 3 to 8 who were supposed to take the test, and triple the approximately 60,000 who sat out the test last year. The parents have spoken — and they want change.

President Johnson had a vision when he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He saw massive inequality in our education system — due to poverty, segregation and a whole host of other societal ills — and set out to fix it. Sadly, the law he signed was hijacked in subsequent decades, and his vision of a Great Society with equal educational opportunity for all has yet to come to fruition. It’s still a long way off.

But by fighting for and winning a reauthorization of ESEA that restores the law’s original intent we will be taking an important step toward fulfilling that original vision.