Status Update: ESEA Reauthorization and NCTE's Recommendations - National Council of Teachers of English
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Status Update: ESEA Reauthorization and NCTE’s Recommendations

MegaphoneOver the last five months, NCTE staff and members have pushed aggressively for improvements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) which is up for reauthorization. On Advocacy Day in early March, NCTE offered three recommendations to policymakers that, together, define our priorities for ESEA reauthorization.

On April 7th, the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee released a bipartisan reauthorization bill that will be marked up in committee next week. It is certainly a compromise, but it contains numerous improvements over the Republican draft bill released prior to hearings in January and February.

Here are some of NCTE’s key recommendations and how they compare to the bipartisan bill.

Recommendation #1: Dedicate Funding for Comprehensive Literacy Programs and for Professional Learning

Decades of research show that literacy is essential to all learning and that literacy education is most effective when it holds to core principles.

NCTE helped to craft a definition of comprehensive literacy education that is included in Title II of the bill. It includes many of these core principles.

Congress should authorize under ESEA at least $500 million for a comprehensive literacy program that includes these core principles, providing formula funding to all 50 states.

The bill includes authorization of a comprehensive literacy program based on language developed by Advocates for Literacy, a coalition in which NCTE plays a central role. This language was adapted from the LEARN Act, which NCTE also helped to write, and includes key provisions to ensure truly comprehensive literacy education, such as directing funding to high-needs schools, providing professional learning and collaboration opportunities to teachers across subject areas, and reserving 15% of funding for early education, 40% for elementary, and 40% for secondary.

The bill does not authorize formula funding or set a specific funding level. However, if NCTE and other advocates can win sufficient funding through the appropriation process, it may be possible to award grants to most if not all states.

Congress should authorize dedicated funding for professional learning that includes protected time in the school week for educator collaboration under mandatory use of funds.

While not mandatory, protected time for collaboration is one of a limited set of evidence-based practices on which state and local literacy grant funding may be spent.

Recommendation #2: Fund and Encourage Assessments for Learning and Innovation in Assessment for Accountability

Congress should provide funding for research, technical assistance, and professional development focused on formative assessment to improve student learning.

The bill contains no dedicated funding for formative assessment, but support for formative assessment is an allowable use of funding in several of the programs within Title II, including the technical assistance provided to states by the Department of Education.

Congress should encourage innovation in assessment for accountability; the assessments should be targeted and should use multiple measures.

The bill provides vastly expanded flexibility to states in how they develop and implement accountability systems. Such systems much include annual testing data, but also multiple measures such as graduation rates and others chosen by the states, which could include resource equity measures. Increased flexibility could make it easier for states to address overtesting.

Federal funding should provide states with the flexibility to try forms of assessment for accountability other than standardized tests, such as portfolios, performance assessments, and competency-based approaches.

The bill allows for local pilot programs that test out alternative approaches to measuring student learning outcomes other than standardized tests. It does not include funding explicitly dedicated to developing such systems, but states and districts have the option of using Title I funding for this purpose.

Federal funding for such assessments should require that they are used only for the purposes and in the manner for which they have been proven valid.

Use of assessments for purposes for which they were not designed would not be outlawed, but the bill does explicitly forbid the Department of Education from mandating that states use tests inappropriately in teacher evaluation.

Recommendation #3: Build the Capacity of High-Needs Schools

Local literacy education capacity building is a powerful and sustainable way of serving children in poverty. Students learn not as isolated individuals but as members of school communities. To improve the literacy learning of the students most in need, we must build the capacity of whole schools and districts in which these students are most concentrated. 

States and districts would have increased flexibility in the use of Title I funds to address inequities, particularly in how they identify and work to turn around struggling schools. This flexibility could make it easier for districts and schools to embrace the capacity-building model.

Title I funds must be devoted to the schools and districts that serve the most low-income children.

The original draft bill included Title I portability, awarding funding based simply in proportion to the number of low-income students in a school rather than on the basis of where there are high concentrations of poverty. This provision has been dropped from the bipartisan bill. The bill includes strong requirements for reporting on equity of access to educational resources, but there is no federal definition of minimum requirements for serving as a teacher of record, which could mask key inequities in the distribution of fully prepared teachers.

On the whole, the bipartisan bill is a significant improvement over both existing law and the earlier draft bill, and further improvements—such as new formula funding for early education—may be possible through amendments in committee and on the Senate floor.

Several significant hurdles remain before a reauthorized version of ESEA becomes law:

  • The Senate bill needs to pass out of committee and on the floor without the addition of damaging amendments.
  • The House needs to pass its own version of ESEA, which is much more conservative than the Senate bill but still not conservative enough for many House Republicans.
  • A conference committee will then need to work out a compromise between the two bills that can garner enough votes to pass both houses and be signed by the President.
  • Getting a compromise bill through the House is likely to be particularly challenging.

Throughout this process, NCTE will continue to press for the policies that our elected leadership have identified as key to supporting teachers dedicated to creating powerful literacy learning environments. Should a bill pass, much work will remain for NCTE member advocates at the state level in order to ensure that the new flexibility such a bill is likely to offer will be used in a way that best serves students.