A Final Thought

A New Year and a New Act for Education

Here we are in 2016, moving into a new phase of a federal education program that was started 51 years ago with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). That act was a major step in the “Great Society” envisioned by President Lyndon Johnson and marked the first time the federal government had gotten directly involved in the operation of the nation’s public schools.

ESEA was essentially supportive legislation providing dollars and guidance to local schools, and while there were some questions about the entrance of the federal government into local affairs, it represented a major step forward as the public schools moved into a new era initiated 10 years earlier when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. that school districts could not run “separate but equal” schools for white and black children, but must provide the same schooling for everyone in an integrated setting.

ESEA provided funding for a variety of programs, most of them aimed at helping children who needed extra support. Although it was an independent program, Head Start grew out of the same need to provide fiscal help and was the first real effort to understand and support the need for early education.

In 2001, under a very different President, Congress once more “reauthorized” ESEA but did it with a totally different objective and a different name. ESEA provided dollars to support programs; the 2001 Act — No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — was more concerned with bending schools to a federal viewpoint than with helping them provide a better educational program. The emphasis changed from support to measurement, and the result was that standardized testing became the mantra for education.

Three significant results of NCLB included: 1) the pitting of school districts against one another in the Race to the Top — a carrot of cash held out for school districts that would push their children for the right answers on the standard tests; 2) the taking away of money from school districts that were educating some of the neediest children because their children often did poorly on those standardized tests (those that needed more got less); and 3) a backlash from parents, teachers, students and citizens that included a movement to hold children out of school on days when tests were given, helping to break down the system. Last year, in New York State as an example, more than 20 percent of students opted out of the standardized tests in protest.

Even its main supporters recognized the problems of NCLB and so now, in 2016, we start a new successor program with ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), a bi-partisan effort to remove some of the federal fingers from the educational throat, deemphasize some of the testing and send more responsibility back to the state level. In writing about the new legislation, The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) pointed out that, “with any bill of this size and scope it defies easy description, and as one would expect given the political climate in Washington, DC, ESSA is a decidedly mixed law with the potential for both positive and negative effects.”

We’ll see. It’s a new year, It’s new legislation with new initials and perhaps a different emphasis. The old bill emphasized avoiding failure; the new one looks for success. But the implementation may turn out to be just the same old thing.

One fly in the ointment is the appointment of John King as the new Secretary of Education. King, as commissioner in New York, was a strong advocate of testing, of labeling schools as “failing” if students did not do well on the standardized tests and for evaluating teachers on test results. He was a major target of the successful movement to opt out, and most education advocates cheered his leaving. Perhaps he has learned a lesson and will truly support education in his new position. I certainly hope so.

Race that school bus

On a totally different subject, as a sports fan I watch a lot of television and subject myself to a lot of advertising messages. One ad particularly enrages me.

It is for Nissan and it shows a parent racing a school bus to see which can get to the school first. I bristle as I see the child in his father’s car sneer at the bus driver. I worry when I see the bus driver take up the challenge but I become furious when I watch the car “win” the contest by driving up to the school at full speed, spinning around and slamming to a stop obviously violating laws, especially in the school zone.

I guess I should not be surprised. Speed is what car manufacturers sell, but it seems to me that advertising that encourages drivers to violate school zones goes beyond the pale.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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