State and district leaders have a great new opportunity under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act: more flexibility in spending the funds they receive than in prior versions.
But let’s face it: Most states won’t seize this opportunity to strive for greater excellence in students’ learning. Even fewer are likely to do so in a way that really helps teachers and principals excel.
Too bad for the kids. Decades of reform and school improvement efforts, beginning long before 2001’s No Child Left Behind, strongly indicate that more freedom to spend federal funds is not enough. Achievement across socioeconomic levels was lower before NCLB’s strict directives than afterward. For example, just 8 to 13 percent of low-income students were proficient in reading or math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000, rising to 18 to 24 percent by 2015. Despite progress across income levels, though, achievement gaps remained intact and about 40 to 50 percent of economically advantaged U.S. students still were not proficient in basic academic skills by 2015.
Yet more jobs than ever will require post-secondary education and training, and job growth is high in STEM subjects, for which schools face some of the greatest teacher shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that STEM occupations employment will grow by 10 percent from 2015 to 2025, compared with 6.5 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. Students need advanced coursework and strong thinking skills in all subjects. But entry into teaching preparation programs has fallen.
If state leaders want learning outcomes that truly prepare students for their future, they need a new approach. Instead of retreating to pre-NCLB terrain, leaders must use the lessons from NCLB to leap ahead to approaches that both work for students and feel great to educators. Among those lessons: a focus on good, solid teaching is not enough to propel the mass of students ahead of their beginnings, and reforms must help teachers improve and excel in their careers, while inspiring promising, new teachers to enter the profession.