U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet: Finally a fix for No Child Left Behind

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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet

It’s probably a safe bet that at one time or another, all of us have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but misguided policies coming out of Washington. Unfortunately, our public education system is no different. Whether you’re a parent, student, teacher, school administrator, or none of the above, you have likely heard of the problems with No Child Left Behind.

This law was a 2002 update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is the chief federal law addressing K-12 education. There were some good and important changes in No Child Left Behind, but it was riddled with serious issues that we saw firsthand as parents and that I experienced in my role as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Fortunately, last month 81 senators came together to pass a long overdue fix to the law. The Every Child Achieves Act reforms many of the failed policies from No Child Left Behind, while still maintaining several of the measures that have proven successful.

On the Senate HELP Committee, our office had the opportunity to help write the bill and secure several amendments. We took the lessons we learned from Denver Public Schools and the countless stories we heard from families, principals, teachers, and kids across Colorado and incorporated them into the new bill. We fought to include measures to better recruit, train, and retain teachers and principals, reduce federal overreach, encourage innovation, and ensure we are supporting our rural schools.

We know that teachers are the single most important in-school factor affecting the quality of a child’s education. To that end, we included support for teachers to grow in their profession, including allowing them to take on leadership roles in school, such as mentoring other teachers and providing academic coaching. We also worked to include access to higher quality teacher development that has been proven to help teachers grow. And we incorporated support for teacher and school leader residency programs, modeled off of the Denver Teacher Residency Program, which we developed right here in Colorado.

One of the chief complaints about No Child Left Behind was its prescriptive, top-down approach to help failing schools. In this new bill, we reduced federal overreach and promoted state-driven accountability systems, while still helping to provide kids from all walks of life with a great education. The bill still maintains annual assessments and data to identify and track achievement gaps for different subgroups of students, but we returned the power to states to decide how best to implement plans to fix their lowest performing schools. The bill also empowers states to set a limit on the amount of time students will spend taking annual assessments, helping to reduce the impact of testing in our classrooms

After hearing from rural communities throughout Colorado, we included a bipartisan package of provisions to help better support our rural schools. These include measures to provide technical assistance to rural school districts when applying for federal grants, clarify that rural districts or Boards of Cooperative Educational Services can join together to submit funding applications, and require that the state and the Department of Education study policymaking processes and ensure they are taking steps to increase the consideration and participation of rural schools.

This bill still isn’t perfect. As we enter into negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill we will work to add accountability measures to make certain that all kids have access to a quality education regardless of their zip code. We need to ensure we are identifying the lowest performing schools so states can put their plans in place.

This bill is shaped by Colorado voices and designed to re-empower those closest to our kids. It helps ensure decisions about educating our children are being made by those who know them best. It includes many necessary tools to help our states, school districts, principals, and teachers ensure the success of the next generation.

Our kids and grandkids are counting on us to help create an education system that prepares them for success in the 21st century. Passing this bill — while a long time coming — is certainly a step in the right direction.

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