“There’s no use in passing a federal education bill if it’s not a civil rights bill.” —Sen. Chris Murphy
Many of us can agree that the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and passed in 2001, has not lived up to its name and has been characterized by its many shortcomings. Despite those shortcomings, however, the strength of NCLB will always be the information it requires from states, particularly for subgroups of students.
After NCLB was passed, we were able to learn more about how Black and Latino students, who are most commonly affected by the achievement gap, are being educated. The limitation of NCLB is that we do not know enough about how to better serve historically disadvantaged students. As NCLB approaches reauthorization, it is important to remember the students who are most adversely affected by the achievement gap.
Although achievement gaps are decreasing, they are still too wide. The Center for American Progress recently released a report that detailed why we need to track data by student subgroups. According to their research, about 1.2 million Black students, 1 million Latino students, 2.8 million students with disabilities, and 2.8 million low-income students are scoring 10 percentage points or more below the overall performance at their schools.
This means achievement gaps exist not only between schools, but within schools. This is particularly important as the racial and economic makeup of this country drastically changes. Low-income students are now the majority of students enrolled in public schools. In just five years, children of color will make up over half of the children in this country. Closing the achievement gap should be considered a national priority, not just an issue that impacts small subgroups.
Many would argue that NCLB required too much from teachers and schools without giving enough resources for solving the problem that we already know exists—too many students are being left behind. NCLB’s subgroup data reveals inequities that most harshly impact disadvantaged students. The downfall was that it was too prescriptive and had a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling. While states should have the opportunity to tailor action plans to their populations, it is also important that states are being held accountable and receive some kind of oversight.
In the proposed ESEA bill, students would still be required to be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math. Instead of federal direction on the best way to measure success or intervene in low-performing schools, states would be given the power to decide what to do with tests, how to rate failing schools and what goals to set for schools. The proposed act also requires states to take action on schools with achievement gaps, but gives states complete freedom and oversight to determine what action they take.
But state and local agencies have a poor track record in protecting the rights of people of color. Had the federal government not stepped in after Brown vs. Board of Education, schools would still be legally segregated. States and schools that do a good job educating disadvantaged students will continue to do so while other schools will not since they lack accountability.
Support for Our Teachers
Finally, I hoped to see more in this reauthorization process about support for educators. While support can look different for each school and each educator, I believe the federal government can (and should) have a role in ensuring support is provided in closing the achievement gap.
I believe the federal government can (and should) have a role in ensuring support is provided in closing the achievement gap.
For instance, states should be required to come up with an actionable plan to close the achievement gap. My last year of teaching, I worked with “difficult to teach” students and teachers who lacked the resources and support to get their students to the next level. The first round of assessments yielded results that were too low and they deemed it impossible to raise students to the level of proficiency. More important, they knew that they were expected to perform the impossible without the help to do it. The lack of support and direction made it difficult for many teachers to be effective. Although some asked for help, they rarely received it. Teachers working in low-performing schools must be given more training, resources and support and states must be required to come up with a plan to deliver this help to them.
As we move forward 13 years after NCLB began, we must learn from past lessons and think critically about what we are asking of our teachers and our students. It is also important that we ask ourselves what the reauthorization means for disadvantaged children who are underserved in failing schools. Though this bill does more to address the needs of Black and Latino students than the two bills passed out of each chamber, I implore Congress to take advantage of the important opportunity to ensure this bill is something we champion as a win for civil rights and for our students. We cannot afford another 13 years of large achievement gaps.