School reform's next test
With a new Congress set to begin, key members on both sides of the aisle are poised to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In fact, the work has been underway for much of the past year, and few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform.
On many issues, Democrats and Republicans agree, starting with the fact that no one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures, even when they are making broad gains. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers want a system that measures not just an arbitrary level of proficiency, but student growth and school progress in ways that better reflect the impact of a school and its teachers on student learning.
Most people dislike NCLB's one-size-fits-all mandates, which apply even if a community has better local solutions than federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options. Providing more flexibility to schools, districts and states - while also holding them accountable - is the goal of many people in both parties.
Both Republicans and Democrats embrace the transparency of NCLB and the requirement to disaggregate data to show achievement gaps by race, income, English proficiency and disability, but they are concerned that NCLB is driving some educators to teach to the test instead of providing a well-rounded education.
That is why many people across the political spectrum support the work of 44 states to replace multiple choice "bubble" tests with a new test that helps inform and improve instruction by accurately measuring what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking abilities.
NCLB's accountability provisions also prompted many states to lower standards, but governors and legislators from both parties in all but a handful of states have rectified the problem by voluntarily adopting higher college and career-ready standards set by state education officials.
Finally, almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers. More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.
These issues are at the heart of the Obama administration's blueprint for reauthorizing ESEA: more flexibility and fairness in our accountability system, a bigger investment in teachers and principals, and a sharper focus on schools and students most at risk.
This common-sense agenda also reflects the quiet bipartisan revolution underway at the state and local level. With the incentive of the Race to the Top program, governors, states and districts across America are implementing comprehensive plans to reform education systems and boost student achievement.
School districts and their local partners in inner cities and rural communities are overcoming poverty and family breakdown to create high-performing schools, including charters and traditional public schools. They are taking bold steps to turn around low-performing schools by investing in teachers, rebuilding school staff, lengthening the school day and changing curricula.
In partnership with local teacher unions, districts are finding new ways to evaluate and compensate their teachers and staff their schools. Some districts have reshaped labor agreements around student success - and teachers have strongly supported these groundbreaking agreements. On Capitol Hill, numerous internal meetings with staff as well as external meetings with educational stakeholders have occurred, several hearings have also been held, and some legislative language has been drafted and shared at the staff level.
The urgency for reform has never been greater. Today, American students trail many other nations in reading, math and science, and a quarter of them do not graduate high school on time. Many college students do not finish, despite the clear national need for more college-educated workers who can successfully compete in the global economy.
President Obama in 2009 set a national goal that America will once again lead the world in college completion by 2020. With our economic and national security at risk, this is a goal Republicans, Democrats and all Americans can unite behind.
Since coming to Washington, I've been told that partisan politics inevitably trumps bipartisan governing. But if I have learned anything as education secretary, it is that conventional wisdom serves to prop up the status quo - and is often wrong.
In the past two years, I have spoken with hundreds of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress. While we don't agree on everything, our core goals are shared - and we all want to fix NCLB to better support reform at the state and local level. So, let's do something together for our children that will build America's future, strengthen our economy and reflect well on us all.
The writer is secretary of education.