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ESSA: Time for the States to Seize the Initiative

I'm told that the hottest item at the recent meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers was ESSA, the new federal education legislation that replaced No Child Left Behind.  That, I thought, is encouraging.  That must mean that the chiefs are reading the legislation the way the Congress intended it to be read, as an invitation, now that so many of the constraints put in place by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have been vanquished, to think big, to reinvent state education systems to meet the enormous challenges the states are facing.  But then my friends told me that no, that wasn't it.  The big question on the minds of most chiefs was what they needed to do to comply with the new legislation.  That was disappointing.

Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander have been trying hard to send a message to the states.  Like many others, they saw the federal government, empowered by No Child Left Behind, with Race to the Top layered on afterwards, as having greatly exceeded its mandate, as having become a national school board that no one wanted.  ESSA was designed as a giant slap on the wrist for the U.S. Department of Education.  Taking back much of the authority that the Bush and Obama administrations had grabbed, Senators Alexander and Murray handed it back to the states.

But that is not the end of the story.  Alexander and Murray remembered that No Child Left Behind received bipartisan support in the first place because the Congress was deeply dissatisfied with the way the states had absorbed a great deal of federal money for disadvantaged students over the years, with very little to show for it.

What the two senators keep saying is that the return of authority to the states is provisional, not necessarily permanent.  They plan to see what the states end up doing with their newfound freedom.  If they go back to their old ways, if they fail to redesign their systems to produce much more learning for all children, but most especially for those disadvantaged students for whom the federal funds are intended, then the Congress will consider what its next step will be, because it does not intend to go back to the status quo ante.

This is not about compliance.  It is about imagination, bold plans and determined implementation.  Unless I misread the intent of Congress, if the states just go through the motions of complying with the requirement to come up with a comprehensive plan a year hence, if state leaders think their systems just need a few tweaks, if they see this as simply a process of managing the usual jockeying among the usual claimants on the available federal funds, then they will find, in the not too distant future, that the federal government will once again be telling them not only how they can spend its money, but the state's money, too.  And there may be no going back next time.


This is a golden opportunity for the states that choose to grab it. Students in close to 30 countries now outperform American students.  All but a handful of the leading industrial countries do better by their low-income and minority students than we do.  High school students in many countries are graduating with two to three years more education than our high school students.  Indeed, what the record shows is that the typical high school student in the United States graduates high school not ready to succeed in most of our colleges because they cannot comprehend textbooks written at a 12th grade level and they cannot succeed in a course called "College Mathematics" even though that course is mostly middle school mathematics. The first year program of most of our colleges is actually what most high schools in many countries accomplish before they graduate high school.  

We not only have many more low-performers than a growing number of other countries, but we have fewer high performers.

When the first NAEP survey was done, about 40 years ago, the U.S. had the best-educated workforce in the world.  Now according to the OECD and ETS, our workforce is among the least well educated in the industrialized world. The consequences for states that want to be competitive in the modern global economy will be very serious.

I have written about all of this elsewhere, repeatedly.  I will say no more about the challenge we face here.  What I do want to do is issue an invitation to the states that are as alarmed by the situation I have just described as I am.

Our organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, has been researching the strategies used by the countries with the world's most effective education and training systems for close to 30 years.  We know as much as any organization in the world about the strategies those countries have used to build mass education systems that can deliver spectacular results at scale. We have been building a world class leadership training system capable of delivering very high quality training to superintendents, central office staff, principals and teachers in leadership positions that will enable them all to transform their states, districts and schools into high-performance systems, based on the lessons learned by the top performers all over the world, including the United States.  And, finally, we have put together an advisory, backed up by our leadership training system, to work closely with a few states determined to rebuild their education and training systems to equal the very best systems in the world.

None of this is about copying anything or anyone. It is about learning from the leaders here and abroad and building something that will work in your context. 

We don't think that any state can do what needs to be done by gathering a consultant and a few leaders in a back room and deciding what to do.  If any state is going to do the tough things that will be needed to match the performance of the world's leaders, big changes will be necessary.  The schools belong to the people and the needed changes are not going to happen unless the people see the need for those changes and get behind them.  That is not a matter of an advertising campaign.  One of the things we have learned from the top performers is that leading real change requires a statewide discussion that involves lots and lots of people from every corner of the state and every interest group.

The question a state needs to start with is not "What should our education policies be?" but rather, "What do we want for our people?"  "What kind of future do we want for our kids and their kids?" "What kind of economy do we want?"  "Do we want to compete on the cost of labor, which will make many people poor? Or on the quality of the goods and services we produce which will make our people rich?" That is a conversation in which the governor, the legislature, educators, the business community, everyday citizens, the press, the higher education system and others have to be deeply involved if it is going to work.  If your state decides that it wants an inclusive economy that is based on selling high quality products and services to the world, then it is an easy step to the conclusion that you cannot get there unless your whole education system is redesigned to achieve that goal.

One more thing.  I am making an economic argument for a thorough revamp of your education system.  But I am most definitely not talking about creating cogs for a new industrial machine.  What we need are highly educated students who have studied not just English, mathematics, science and technology, but music and art and history too.  Young people with inquiring, independent minds who know the difference between right and wrong and will do the right thing when it is hard to do, young people with vision who see differences among people in culture and background as a strength and not a problem, who can set their own direction and be cogs in no one's world.

What ESSA is asking the states for is not compliance.  It is asking for a plan to build the kind of education system that can turn out the most highly and deeply educated people on the planet, in great numbers, at a price the public can afford.  That will require a redesigned system staffed by highly educated and well-trained, well-compensated and well-supported teachers who are treated as professionals.

The states we want to partner with will be states in which the top leaders in the governor's office, the state education agency, the higher education agency, the legislature and the business community want to reach for the stars.  If that describes your state and you think you might want to produce a plan that will set you on that road, we can help.   Send me an e-mail at [email protected].

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