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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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The Latest ESEA Proposal: A Deeper Look (Part 1)

Published:  October 18, 2011

Last week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a proposal for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind. Yesterday, Harkin and his counterpart on the Senate’s education panel, Mike Enzi (R-WY), released a revised version of the proposal, reportedly to include more of what Senate Republicans want. Much like the first one, this newer version includes some key elements related to early childhood education, birth through third grade. In this post and more to come, we will give some thumbs up and talk through specifics of the legislation.

Today let’s look at, Title I, Part A, the part of the ESEA that aims to give disadvantaged children a leg up. The law’s purpose statement reads that this goal can be accomplished by: 1) setting high expectations for children to graduate from high school college and career ready; 2) supporting high-quality teaching; 3) encouraging state and local innovation and leadership; 4) providing additional resources and support to meet the needs of disadvantaged children; 5) focusing on increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap; 6) removing barriers and promoting integration across all levels of education and across federal education programs; 7) streamlining federal requirements; and 8) strengthening parental engagement and coordination of student, family and community support.

Deserving of a thumbs up:

  • Multiple assessments to show growth: The bill gives states the option to either use a single summative assessment at the end of the school year or multiple assessments throughout the school year to show learning growth. This has the potential to open the door for smarter and developmentally informed assessments for all grade levels and subject areas that states choose to test.
  • Coordinating with Early Childhood Advisory Councils: It’s good to see that states are required to coordinate with Early Childhood Advisory Councils in developing their state plans for use of Title I funds, as well as for developing family engagement plans.
  • Reservation of Title I funds for early childhood: Current law allows Title I funds to be used for children before they reach kindergarten. But there has been confusion in the past about how these funds can be used by eligible schools, and states are not required to track how much Title I money is used to support early childhood programs for children birth to 5. The reauthorization bill specifically gives school district’s the ability to reserve funds for early childhood programs – in eligible school attendance areas – before making allocations to high schools. (The school attendance area refers to the geographical area in which the children who are normally served by a particular school reside. The school attendance area is eligible for Title I funding if the percentage of children from low-income families is at least as high as the percentage of children from low-income families served by the local educational agency as a whole.) This is another way of signaling that school districts can use Title I dollars for pre-kindergarten and other 0-5 early childhood programs.
  • Achievement Gap Schools: The bill requires states to identify the 5 percent of public high schools and the 5 percent of public elementary and middle or junior high schools that have the largest achievement gaps among any subgroup. (The revised bill stated that these can’t also have been identified as persistently low-achieving schools). Achievement Gap Schools are expected to improve performance after three years of being identified. Any school district with an Achievement Gap School that has not improved within that time-frame would not be eligible for “any priority, preference or special consideration for any grant, subgrant or other program funding under ESEA.”  This is a good way of encouraging districts to assist schools in closing achievement gaps. Sometimes the selection of grantees for federal programs comes down to a mere point or even less, so being stripped of priority points could make all the difference for a school district. Priority points are sometimes awarded to applicants that focus on rural schools or special populations or that plan to focus on something that federal government has identified as an area of interest. The sanction is important, but it would be helpful to see the bill outline some specific strategies for how districts can help the schools identified narrow the gaps. High-quality pre-K, full-day kindergarten and strong, aligned instruction throughout the PreK-3rd grade continuum would surely qualify.
  • Assessment grants: ESEA’s “Grants for State Assessments” are designed to help states develop, improve or administer assessments and standards that meet the federal requirements. This bill says that if states have already done the above, then they could use grant funds to develop, enhance or administer early learning assessments – used in publicly funded early childhood programs and elementary schools – to improve instruction for young children. This is a good addition. It could encourage states to be more thoughtful about appropriate assessments for children in preschool and early grade programs and how data can be used by teachers to plan their instruction. And even though the stated purpose is to “improve instruction,” we know that many states are also grappling with how to evaluate teachers on student performance in the early grades. Creating appropriate, high-quality assessments would help. (In our reporting, we’ve come across examples of schools using schoolwide achievement scores or results from third-grade reading assessments to evaluate kindergarten teachers in the absence of anything else.) Better assessments are needed and could be used for multiple purposes, as long as they are high-quality, developmentally appropriate for the age of children being assessed and can provide meaningful information to teachers in a timely manner so the results can be used to improve instruction.

What should be made clearer or stronger:

  • Title I used for early childhood programs: Given that there has been considerable confusion or misinformation in some cases over whether Title I dollars could be used for early childhood programs down to infants and toddlers, we searched to see whether the bill makes explicit that Title I funding can be used for children starting at birth.  We didn't see a place where that sort of clarifying information was presented. In the bill's definitions, a child is defined as any person within the age limits for which the state provides free public education.  Let’s hope this doesn't mean that some states (those without state-funded pre-K, for example) could interpret this to mean that districts couldn't use Title I dollars for pre-K.  The bill should be clearer about allowable uses for these funds in early childhood programs.
  • State, district and school report cards: Another addition in this bill is Annual State Report Cards. States would be required to prepare and make public a yearly report card for each public elementary and secondary school, each local school district and the state as a whole. Required student information for school report cards includes indicators like student achievement on state academic assessments in the aggregate and disaggregated by subgroups, as well as the most recently available results in grades 4 and 8 of the state’s students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math. The NAEP scores are a smart addition because they can open parents’ and policymakers’ eyes to the low expectations that come with many state-wide tests.)  There is also “optional information” that states can choose to include in each school report card:

o   the percentage of students passing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate examinations in high school;

o   the average class size, by grade;

o   the incidences of school violence, bullying, student suspensions, drug use and other similar indicators’

o   indicators of school climate;

o   student attendance; and

o   school readiness of students in kindergarten.

At least two of these optional criteria should be required: attendance information, which could shine more light on the surprising number of young children who miss more than 10 percent of their school days, and school readiness information. Since these report cards are not being used for high-stakes accountability and are instead about transparency and providing information to parents and policymakers, it is critical that more information be supplied regarding young children before they enter kindergarten. At the very least, states should be requiring school districts to include information on these report cards that provides data points on the percentage of the district’s children in center-based environments before attending kindergarten and what kinds of centers those were (state-funded pre-K, Head Start, private preschools, home-based care, etc). As states create the longitudinal data systems required under the America COMPETES Act, more and more of this information should be readily available and as a result should be an integral part of a district’s and school's report card.

  • Strategies for turning around Lowest-Performing Schools: This bill would also require states to identify “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools.” These schools would include the lowest-achieving 5 percent of public high schools and the lowest-achieving 5 percent of public elementary and middle, or junior high, schools. Identification of these schools would be based on student performance on state academic assessments (summative or multiple assessments for growth) in English language arts and mathematics. Once labeled, a school would have to make improvements using one of several strategies outlined in the bill. Unfortunately only the “school closure strategy” is explicit about allowing school districts to use school-improvement funds on pre-kindergarten classrooms, and there is no mention of permission to use such funds to expand kindergarten from a half to a full day. Expansion of high-quality pre-K and full-day K should be included explicitly as allowable use of funds in all of the school improvement strategies– not just in the school closure model.

What’s missing:

This bill is a good first step – and many of the above provisions would go a long way to improve instruction for young children – but it doesn’t lay out a fully comprehensive vision for a PreK-12 education system that starts in early childhood. One area that illustrates that point is the lack of a call for standards alignment.

  • Standards alignment: The bill does require states to have or develop “college and career ready aligned (K-12) standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, but it doesn’t mention alignment with pre-K or a state’s early learning guidelines. We’ve written before that the language in the Continuum of Learning Act includes references to 1) aligning early learning standards with standards in the K-3 grades and 2) eventually expanding K-3 standards to include social-emotional learning and other domains. We recognize that this could be a heavy lift for states and school districts but it should be something states work towards accomplishing.

In our “12 Ideas for Early Education in the 112th Congress," we also made the recommendation that the federal government should give credit to elementary schools that use student data to improve instruction in the early grades. While we wrote about this in the context of rewriting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) sanctions, which were eliminated in Harkin’s bill, this idea of recognizing data use to improve instruction could definitely be included within the school improvement strategies.

There’s a long road ahead – and several roadblocks to address – before this bill would become law. As we’ve mentioned before, the House Education and the Workforce Committee has introduced several piecemeal bills to reauthorize the law. A group of Senate Republicans led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have also introduced a series of bills for reauthorization of ESEA. Adding to the challenge is the quickly approaching presidential election. Republican primaries begin in January. Most Washington insiders still agree that reauthorization in 2011 or 2012 is not likely. Still, last week’s proposals, not to mention the Waiver criteria released by the Department of Education, are providing new fodder for thinking through what the eventual reauthorization of ESEA could look like in today’s political climate. This week the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will convene to talk about the bill. Several amendments are expected to be put forth, including some pertaining to early education. We’ll keep you posted and provide analysis of other sections of the bill in the coming weeks

Don’t miss our special page on Early Learning in ESEA, where you’ll find previous blog posts, issue briefs and recommendations from the Early Education Initiative and other groups.

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