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White House: ESEA Rewrite Needs to Focus on Struggling Schools and Students

Both houses of Congress are about to consider bills to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But the Obama administration is worried that neither version of the legislation does enough to ensure states stay focused on struggling schools and on closing the achievement gap. And it can't support either bill at this point, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday.

The White House has already threatened to veto the House legislation. But it's stopping short of issuing a similar threat against the Senate bill.

Low-performing schools and students remain persistent problems at the state level, the administration argues. For instance, in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in each state—as identified by the Obama administration—only 36 percent of students hit grade-level proficiency in reading on state tests,  compared to 67 percent in all other schools, according to a report released Monday by the White House.

And in some states, the gaps were even more serious. For instance, in Ohio, 26 percent of students in low-performing schools hit state proficiency targets on state math tests, compared to 78 percent for all other schools. And in Michigan 38 percent of students in low-performing schools graduated high school, compared to 89 percent elsewhere in the state, a 54 percent gap.

Here's the big tension point: A very careful, delicately balanced bipartisan bill from Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., that's about to hit the Senate floor would keep in place the testing regime at the heart of the current version of the law—the No Child Left Behind Act.

But it would turn over major decisions on accountability to states, including which schools to intervene in, how to fix them, and how to flag schools with big achievement gaps between traditionally overlooked students (like English-language learners) and their peers.

If the bill were to tighten up the federal role in accountability—which it would, under a still-in-the-works amendment by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.—it could lose support among Republicans. Meanwhile, the civil rights community is threatening to oppose the bill if there aren't more accountability protections included, which could hurt its support with some Democrats.

What's more, the Republican-written House version of the measure, which has struggled to gain support from conservatives, would go even further in rolling back federal accountability protections.

"Currently neither bill considered in the House or Senate has sufficient accountability systems, and that's unacceptable," said Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic policy advisor.

The Obama administration is looking for new language that would require states to identify their lowest-performing schools, schools with big achievement gaps, and schools with high dropout rates and intervene to make them better. 

The White House report makes the case for why there needs to be more attention to low-performing schools and students.

But while the information about gaps between the lowest-performing schools and other schools is telling, it's unclear from the report whether a strong federal role—similar to what the Obama administration is seeking—would do anything to fix them.

For instance, the report attempts to illustrate the progress the nation has already made under the NCLB law, which sought to put a laser-like focus on traditionally overlooked groups of students. It notes that the nation's graduation rate hit 81 percent in the 2012-13 school year, an all-time high after years of a federal focus on graduation rates. But experts are divided on whether NCLB is to thank for that.

And the report singles out progress in Tennessee and the District of Columbia to show how a focus on teacher quality and the lowest-performing schools can pay off. Both have seen gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (aka the Nation's Report Card) and both were participants in the administration's Race to the Top program.

But other Race to the Top states haven't had nearly as much success—in fact only half of the dozen participants produced statistically significant gains on the National Assesment of Educational Progress or NAEP. Delaware, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.

And there are also plenty of other examples of how the administration's policies—particularly under its NCLB waivers—haven't worked as well as intended. For instance, the Obama administration's prescription for the lowest-performing schools, a revamped version of the School Improvement Grant program, has cost more than $5 billion since 2010, with decidedly mixed results. Two-thirds of the schools in the program improved during their first two years of the program, but another third slid backward.

And the administration hasn't released the data from the third year of the program yet, even though that group of schools finished up in the 2012-13 school year. (To be fair, the department has had some technical problems in tracking the progress of SIG schools, thanks to issues with a contractor.)

What's more, under waivers, which are in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia, states must identify their absolute worst schools and schools with big achievement gaps and try to fix them. But that has been one of the hardest pieces of waiver implementation to get right. States were more often cited for failing to meet expectations in this area than any other.

And states seeking to renew their waivers have had a tough time tweaking their "exit criteria," meaning figuring out when a school should be considered "turned around" and should stop receiving support—and scrutiny. 

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