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To See the Future of Education, Look Beyond ESEA

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Over the past week, much of Washington's education-policy community has been consumed with talk of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (and a former U.S. Secretary of Education) introduced a "discussion draft" bill, and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's ranking Democrat, outlined her principles for reauthorization in a speech on the Senate floor.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also laid out his ideas for reauthorization, and numerous policy groups, civil rights organizations, and think tanks issued statements and papers putting forth their plans. Twitter has been lighting up with comments from partisans on all sides.

While the activity suggests that the long-delayed reauthorization might actually happen, much of the discussion focuses on fighting the last war, as Bob Wise, the president of my organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education, put it recently. The biggest flash points appear to be over whether to require states to test students in every grade or just some grades, and whether the federal government should relax some requirements and allow states to make more decisions on their own. That is, the fights are over whether to retain or scrap provisions in the twelve-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. There is little discussion about the future of education and how the federal law might support that.

Two other, less-heralded, events from last week are more heartening. They show that some people in Washington, at least, are looking ahead to what education can be.

One was the release of a report by the Innovation Lab Network, a group of leading-edge states working under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers (and a regular contributor to this blog). The report offers a guide to states to support local districts in developing and advancing student-centered, personalized learning models. It presents decisions state departments of education need to make around the expectations for student learning, how those expectations will be assessed at all levels, how measures of learning inform accountability and reporting, and how to support schools. The report also shows that these ideas are not just dreams for the future--it provides examples of states that are already moving in this direction.

Another promising event was the announcement by the Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education of twelve regional summits for district leaders. These summits, part of the "Future Ready" initiative, will allow more than 500 leaders to share ideas and access resources to help them design new education systems that harness the power of technology to support higher levels of learning for all students. But while technology will undergird the efforts, the real focus is on student learning goals and how to meet them, with technology as a supporting element.

To be sure, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is critically important. Since its original passage fifty years ago, the law has played a vital role in promoting and ensuring equity. But in 2015, new ideas are needed to realize the promise of an excellent education for every child. The ILN report and the Future Ready initiative show that these ideas are on the table.

 

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