Education Reform in America: Plausible or Implausible?

by Rose Tutera-Baldauf
January 17, 2011

In the wake of November’s election, the District of Columbia issued a chilling referendum on education reform, leading to the resignation of Chancellor Michelle Rhee. However, the election results have far broader implications for the future of public education. As the 112th Congress convenes in January, education advocates wonder about the fate of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) Reauthorization in the hands of the Republican-controlled House and gridlocked Senate.

The White House has expressed its commitment to education. In his State of the Union address, the President remarked that “… Our success in the future as a people will ultimately depend on what happens long before an entrepreneur opens his doors or a nurse walks the rounds or a scientist steps into her laboratory. Our future is determined each and every day when our children enter the classroom, ready to learn and brimming with promise. It is that promise that we must help them fulfill.”

Last March, Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to education, announcing his plan for an overhaul of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The Blueprint for Reform, which impacts the nation’s almost 100,000 public schools, will retain some of the characteristics of NCLB, including annual reading and math tests, but promises improvement by offering schools greater autonomy. Unlike NCLB, for which the primary requirement is math and reading proficiency, the Blueprint calls for all students, regardless of their income, disability status, race, or ethnic background, to graduate prepared for college and a career (Dillon 2010). Schools are encouraged to reach the goal by 2020.

The Blueprint aims to achieve its goals by supporting the professional development of teachers and leaders in every school. Furthermore, the administration hopes to redirect the current punitive focus of NCLB by pairing realistic measures of accountability with an increase in rewards and incentives for demonstrated progress and success. The plan is also receiving support from the business community for its promises to include local business leaders in its efforts to promote innovation.

Under the leadership of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the administration has already launched Race to the Top, a program through which states compete for competitive grants by improving conditions for reform and innovation, demonstrating improvements in student performance, closing achievement gaps, improving graduation rates, improving student college and career readiness, and promoting good teaching (U.S. Department of Education. “Race to the Top Program Executive Summary”).

Like NCLB, which served as a reauthorization of the 1965 ESEA, the 2011 reauthorization aims to bring equity to our nation’s public school system.

NCLB established a national commitment to hold public schools accountable for improving outcomes for all students. The policy emphasized achievement gaps through annual assessments and report cards for every school with the goal of bridging those gaps and supporting school progress.

Many argue that NCLB shifted the focus of education to test scores, and that its one-size-fits-all model is shortsighted and offers little help to failing schools. Under NCLB, testing focused on measuring definitive cutoffs of student proficiency, criteria that results in the “failing” of many schools that may show improvement. Obama’s blueprint instead promotes the differentiation of schools based on student growth and school progress (U.S. Department of Education). The administration aims to assess indicators other than test scores, such as graduation rates, the learning environment, attendance, and course completion to “paint a fuller picture” of schools. By focusing on indicators other than test scores, the administration hopes to draw attention to a more well-rounded education, rather than just math and reading results. Given the shifting focus of industry, the Blueprint also includes additional support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education The administration has added $100 million to the 2011 budget for programs that encourage schools to offer a broad range of courses.

The Blueprint, however, does call for more targeted identification of schools and thus, limits the number of schools in need of intensive reform—unlike NCLB, which was criticized for over-identifying “failing” schools. Though these interventions in failing schools would be more intensive, federal involvement in thousands of reasonably performing schools would be avoided.

NCLB requires that states adopt “challenging academic standards” to qualify for Title I funding. Obama’s Blueprint, however, requires states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” to qualify for the $14 billion Title I program. In both cases, the critique of a lack of national standards arises and a tendency for great variability amongst states occurs. As Chancellor Rhee points out in her interview with the Georgetown Public Policy Review, “I also think we have to get apples-to-apples comparisons between school districts by adopting national standards and assessments. Until we’re on the same page, we can’t really know how we [the District] compare to other states, and states shouldn’t be able to lower standards to meet the minimum benchmark” (Jambulapati, Georgetown Public Policy Review Blog, posted October 13, 2010).

As part of a series of hearings, the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee began to examine how schools can address the diverse needs of learners, particularly low-income students, minority students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, Native Americans, and homeless students. Research has revealed that more than 1.2 million middle and high school students drop out of school each year (about 7,000 per day) and that low-income students are 10% more likely to drop out than their affluent peers. As a result, the House Subcommittee chose to illuminate the issue of college and career readiness for all students.

Funding distribution has also been a subject of debate for the committee. Only about 10% of federal Title I dollars are spent on high schools, even though high schools educate around 25% of low-income students. Furthermore, the $25 billion in investments made in early education far exceed the $2.5 billion dedicated to middle schools and the $3 billion dedicated to high schools.

The need for reauthorization is glaring. Many argue that it is years overdue. As the NCLB approaches expiration, funding is scheduled to revert to old formulas at the end of the year. Meanwhile, many schools are not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and many others are ineligible for school funding grants, not to mention the negative impact of the recession on state budgets. As Governor Bob Wise (D-WV), President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said, “This is a GM moment for education” (Alliance for Excellent Education).

So, what will come next? When will it come?

Though the outcome for ESEA reauthorization is unknown, history has favored education policy even during times of divided government. Historically, we have avoided creating political divides over education. Since the 1965 enactment of the ESEA, it has been a bipartisan issue. Even NCLB led to a partnership between the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former President George W. Bush. When the ESEA became reauthorized and renamed No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the 107th Congress had a Democratic Senate, a Republican House and a Republican Administration (Guernsey, New America Foundation Early Ed Blog, posted November 9, 2010).

With the blueprint laid out and hearings taking place, it is only a matter of time before reauthorization. Many believe the key to making progressive change is bipartisanship. As Governor Bob McDonnell (R-Va) was quoted saying in response to the State of the Union address, “All Americans agree that a young person needs a world-class education to compete in the global economy… The President and I agree on expanding the number of high-quality charter schools, and rewarding teachers for excellent performance. More school choices for parents and students mean more accountability and greater achievement” (U.S. Department of Education, ED.Gov Blog, posted January 28, 2010). Representative John Kline (R-Minn.) has also been very outspoken about the importance of addressing education policy as a bipartisan issue. We have already seen willingness for Republicans and Democrats to work together on reforms during hearings.

Funding issues will cause many of the anticipated delays. For example, Congress may not be content with the accountability standards and NCLB Title I funding. For those who favor the Race to the Top model and other competitive grant funding models, the reauthorization proves a more expedient process. A primary source of contention is going to be the provisions that call for additional financial support, such as additional funding for comprehensive services so that students are safe, healthy and able to focus on learning or additional investment in developing teachers and leaders. While agreements may be reached on the need, the amount and sources of funding will certainly produce time-consuming debates.

No Child Left Behind refocused the nation’s attention on equitable education and Republicans and Democrats alike set this as a priority. However, as 2011 approaches, new tactics are needed. With healthcare and the economy at the top of people’s lists, it is hard to say when Republicans and Democrats will reauthorize ESEA.

As we ponder the future of public education in our nation, we are left wondering: Can education once again be a bipartisan issue? And with such limited time, can we legislate meaningful education reform?


Alliance for Excellent Education. “Webinar: Education News From Washington, DC—An Update on ESEA Reauthorization,” posted June 15, 2010. (accessed November 26, 2010).

Committee on Education & Labor. “ Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee.” (accessed November 27, 2010).

Dillon, Sam. “Obama Calls for Major Change in Education Law,” New York Times, March 13, 2010, Education Section. (accessed November 26, 2010).

Guernsey, Lisa. “ESEA in the Next Congress? A Few Notes of Hope, But Outlook Mostly Bleak.” New America Foundation Early Ed Blog. Posted November 9, 2010, (accessed November 27, 2010).

Jambulapati, Padmini. “Interview with Michelle Rhee October 13, 2010.” Georgetown Public Policy Review Blog. Posted October 13, 2010, (accessed November 24, 2010).

Klein, Alyson. “ESEA Renewal a Priority, White House Adviser Says.” Education Week’s Politics K-12 Blog. Posted November 12, 2010. (accessed November 26, 2010).

U.S. Department of Education. “Elementary & Secondary Education, ESEA Reauthorization: A Blueprint for Reform.” (accessed November 27, 2010).

U.S. Department of Education. “Race to the Top Program Executive Summary.” November 2009. (accessed November 29, 2010).

U.S. Department of Education. “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).” ED.Gov Blog. Posted January 28, 2010. (accessed November 28, 2010).


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