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ESEA Cabin Fever: Rick Hess and Peter Cunningham Argue Reauthorization

What happens when a conservative and a liberal are stuck in a room together in the middle of February with two laptops and lot on their minds? In this case, the "room" is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the chief federal law governing K-12 education and currently the subject of much debate on Capitol Hill. Well, they start talking. (This is doubly true if they're longtime friends who respect each other, agree on some things, but also sometimes read one another and wonder, "What the hell can you possibly be thinking?")

So they start with points of agreement, but soon they start disagreeing, and challenging each other's assumptions and arguments. This is a discussion we've been having (mostly in private) over the past few weeks, on questions like whether federal mandates help to drive school improvement. Our hope is that taking this discussion public may contribute, if only a bit, to a more robust, respectful, and constructive discussion about how to improve on the No Child Left Behind Act. Our larger hope is that we all walk out of this cabin with an ESEA that has a chance of a] passing and b] doing some good. (Cabin Fever will run every other day from February 4-19 on RHSU and Education Post.)

Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

Issue # 1: Testing and Transparency:  So, let's start with some of the big pieces where we agree. The most significant is on the vital federal role when it comes to promoting transparency and illuminating what's happening in America's schools—for all of our children. We agree on the value of continuing NCLB's annual testing requirements. We think a reasonable requirement, in exchange for Title I funding, is that states continue to administer those assessments, disaggregate the results in accordance with current law, and publicly report them by school, district and state.

We also agree that it's worth bolstering those public reporting requirements in the new law (for Rick, this constitutes a healthy alternative to more intrusive federal mandates; for Peter, it's a complement to other federal requirements). While the NCLB-style focus on student outcomes is useful and important, parents, voters, and other stakeholders need to know other factors as well—especially as far as what resources are being used to produce those results.

So, federal reporting requirements should require schools and districts to report per-pupil spending enabling parents, taxpayers and other stakeholders to analyze where and how dollars are being spent. Districts should also be required to report, by school, expenditures for certain simple categories: e.g., faculty salaries, support staff, instructional materials, and so forth. We both appreciate that the accounting systems necessary to make these figures consistently meaningful isn't in place everywhere, posing a practical challenge that should not be underestimated.

We'd also like to see states required to provide a broader bucket of consistent metrics on school and system outcomes like numbers of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses or completing career certifications, and operational factors like turnover, experience, and benefit costs. Okay, with that, let's get to the issues where we don't agree. Here's the schedule.

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance.

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement.

Wednesday, February 11 - Issue #4: Title I portability.

Friday, February 13 - Issue #5: What the federal government should require when it comes to teacher evaluation.

Tuesday, February 17 - Issue #6: Federal support for innovation.

Thursday, February 19 - Wrapping Things Up: The proper federal role in K-12 education.

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