Final reauthorization bill leaves out ‘readiness’ goals

Final reauthorization bill leaves out ‘readiness’ goals

(District of Columbia) In what may prove the single largest showing of bipartisanship during the entire two terms of the Obama administration, Congress is poised to approve a sweeping rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In a procedural move to cut off further debate, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly agreed to bring the Every Student Succeeds Act back for a final vote today.

If so, President Barack Obama has signaled that he will sign it perhaps before the end of the week.

Although both Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan are cheering the bill’s passage, there are number of key elements in the legislation that run counter to long-held presidential policies.

One significant departure is its lack of focus on creating students who are “college and career ready,” a term closely associated with the Obama administration and the architects of the Common Core State Standards.

The term itself isn’t even in the final version, David DeSchryver, senior vice president and co-director of Whiteboard Advisors, a D.C.-based education consulting firm, noted in an analysis released last week.

“Rather, this bill asks states and districts to take a holistic approach to student learning,” DeSchryver said.

For example, he explained, under the new bill school districts will be required to explain how they are implementing “a well-rounded program of instruction,” how they are targeting at-risk students and how they are planning to improve the overall academic status of a school.

“This is a big departure from the current No Child Left Behind Act,” DeSchryver said. “NCLB asked states and districts to focus their efforts on interventions for students in Title I schools that were failing or at risk of failing the state's academic achievement standards, as measured by annual assessments.

“This bill, in contrast, seeks to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education and that schools close student achievement gaps,”’ he said. “There is a broader concept of student learning at play here, and that means that there will be a broader meaning of what costs are allowable under the program.”

The concept of college and career readiness has been a key goal of virtually every education initiative sponsored by Obama’s White House – including Race to the Top, the NCLB waivers as well as Investing in Innovation and School Improvement Grants.

Although the administration was not involved in the development of Common Core, Obama and Duncan were big supporters and attempted to encourage states to adopt the nationalized curriculum standards and make college and career readiness conditions for getting federal support for some programs.

An early version of the compromise legislation retained the readiness goals and it is unclear why Congressional leaders jettisoned the concept in building the final compromise language.

One obvious answer is Common Core and the deep distrust many conservative Republicans – especially in the House – have of the federal government’s role in dictating to states and local officials what students should be learning.

The new law, for instance, specifically prohibits the U.S. Department of Education or any other federal agency for that matter from providing any incentive supporting a specific set of standards.

Indeed, the final bill calls on states to have “challenging” academic standards – but that term is completely left up to the states to define.

A departure from the readiness goals could also throw into uncertainty efforts some states have taken to build new accountability systems. According to a report from the Education Commission of the States, 12 states have mandatory assessments with “college ready” cut scores – including Ohio, Florida and Texas.

California is one of a number of states that are in the process of restructuring their performance and accountability system based on college and career readiness goals.

While the new federal education bill doesn’t restrict states from using readiness goals, the fact that as an objective it is no longer part of the federal lexicon suggests it could soon become a term out of fashion.

Duncan, who leaves his post as Obama’s top education advisor, might argue otherwise. He tweeted in support of the new bill Tuesday afternoon.

“Glad #ESSA challenges students w\high learning standards, holds schools accountable & doubles down on quality,” he said.

Some observers called Duncan’s assessment off-key given the clear defeat for the White House.

“Arne, they leveled your program and office. Why are you celebrating it?” tweeted Sandy Kress, one of the original architects of NCLB under former President George W. Bush.