By Bill Frist, M.D. and John Podesta
Politico, February 9, 2011
Though bipartisanship now feels like a footnote in a history book, both parties have an opportunity to work together again on a big issue: education.
The revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind, passed in the Senate and House with overwhelming bipartisan support under George W. Bush. Now, Congress must come together again to reauthorize it.
No Child Left Behind made a good first pass at making school boards and districts responsible for all their students' achievement. But its outdated approach needs to be revised. Strengthening the law in reauthorization could help ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed through public education.
There are four compelling reasons to act here. First, the law's current accountability framework is outdated. No Child Left Behind provided pressure and political cover for local school boards and district officials to spur improvement. But the way the law measures results is flawed.
School districts are now required to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014. Each year, however, the current accountability framework penalizes more and more schools that may not have met the standards but actually made real strides in improving academic performance.
Second, our schools need an overarching principle that reflects the challenges we face in the 21st century. In particular, economic competitiveness requires that all students graduate from high school ready for college or a career.
A revamped law, focused on college and career readiness, would reward states for voluntarily developing clearer, higher academic standards consistent with this goal. It should encourage schools to share best practices and implement better assessments to gauge students’ progress. The law must do more than label failing schools based on proficiency rates.
Third, a reauthorized No Child Left Behind law should integrate competitive grant programs, especially ones spurring innovation, which Congress has funded but not authorized. Many states, including Race to the Top winner Tennessee, used data collected under No Child Left Behind to build comprehensive plans to transform K-12 education.
Competitive grants reward excellence and innovation with a less prescriptive federal role. The new Investing in Innovation program, for example, enhanced the country's educational research and development capacity. The Teacher Incentive Fund program overhauled the way we pay teachers and principals in participating states, districts and charter schools.
Finally, it's urgent that Congress act on the most important finding of No Child Left Behind: The caliber of teachers and principals is the most important lever for improving academic achievement.
Action starts with recruitment. We know that countries that draw teaching talent from the top third of their college graduates outperform the United States in student achievement.
Encouraging districts to use meaningful performance evaluation systems for both teachers and principals is also an important step toward putting the best possible teachers in the classroom — particularly for the kids who need the most help. Another is to require teacher preparation programs to track and publish information about the characteristics of candidates entering their programs and these candidates’ success in promoting student learning gains once they begin teaching.
Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind provides an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together to develop important solutions on a key policy issue. Including these initiatives will go a long way toward making sure our children - especially children living in poverty - receive the comprehensive, globally competitive education they deserve.
Bill Frist, a former Republican Senate majority leader, is chairman of the nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
John Podesta is president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.