When the Rolling Stones wrote “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Congress was probably not in mind. Yet lawmakers have traded in this basic credo — and the bipartisanship that comes with it — for a “my way or the highway” approach that breeds legislative gridlock. That’s why many in the education community were stunned last month, when senators unanimously approved out of committee a compromise K-12 education bill updating No Child Left Behind.
The new bill — the Every Child Achieves Act — is not perfect, but Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., deserve a standing ovation for addressing NCLB’s biggest faults while leaving in place its biggest strengths. Even though both sides had to give up things they wanted, both sides got what they needed. For example, the bill eliminates the unrealistic one-size-fits-all federal accountability system known as Annual Yearly Progress and it made certain accountability systems would spring up locally as long as certain crucial federal guardrails are met to ensure students aren’t falling through the cracks.
Still, there is room to improve the legislation. Three changes would strengthen accountability and preserve flexibility while keeping nearly everyone happy.
First, the bill should require states to take achievement gaps into account when identifying their low-performing schools. This reasonable federal guardrail would ensure states pay attention to how traditionally marginalized groups of students are doing in all schools, not just the schools that are often found at the very bottom. Under the bill as written now, a school could be labeled high-performing even if certain groups of kids — such as students of color, low-income students or students with disabilities — were doing very poorly. As we detailed in a February report, states will ignore these gaps and dilute the weight of how these students are doing among school-wide averages if they’re allowed the leeway.
Second, the Senate should shorten the amount of time that state-driven plans for accountability systems are in effect. The bill allows state plans to remain in place for seven years without revision — a significant amount of time if it turns out that plan doesn’t actually work. In that scenario, a child could spend half of his or her K-12 career at a school ignored by an accountability system that isn’t working before the state would need to change course. Instead, state plans should be revised every five years, providing a slightly more frequent checkpoint to ensure our $25 billion in federal tax dollars is being spent wisely. This is a more reasonable length of time given that this process is the only real place where the federal government can ensure that states are in fact providing appropriate support to all of their schools and students. That still gives states much more time than the current NCLB waivers, which are good for only one or two years.
Lastly, we should give schools and their students credit for being “most improved.” If NCLB has taught us anything, it is that holding schools accountable to meet a static bar of proficiency simply doesn’t work. Not only does a proficiency measure fail to capture the gains schools and teachers are able to make with students in any given year, it blindly labels all schools that don’t meet the bar as abject failures, regardless of how close a school is to reaching its proficiency goal. The bill should be revised to make measuring growth a required — rather than optional — factor in state accountability systems. Measuring student growth from year to year would allow states to target their resources and support in a more efficient way, creating the differentiation among schools that NCLB failed to permit.
By heeding the words of the Rolling Stones, Alexander and Murray have been able to advance the most serious attempt to reauthorize NCLB since its expiration in 2007. Compromise means no one gets exactly what they want, but everyone gets what they need — that is satisfaction.
Tamara Hiler is the policy adviser for education at Third Way.