On Monday Ed Week published an article positing that the priorities outlined in Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, could be a template for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). One former Department of Education official interviewed for the story suggested that these priorities - including improving supports for struggling schools, quality and distribution of teachers, state data systems, and standards and assessments – could become compulsory for states receiving ESEA Title I funds, a wide departure from the current requirements for these funds that focus on equitable distribution of funds.
While the Race to the Top priorities closely reflect the Obama administration’s agenda for education, the administration made it clear from the beginning that they wanted an ESEA that was strong on outcomes but not on methods. One of No Child Left Behind’s greatest weaknesses, they believed, was that it was very strict about methods (i.e. testing and teacher qualifications) but weak on outcomes (i.e. standards and assessments).
In other words, 50 states currently measure student achievement based on 50 different sets of academic standards, resulting in vastly different ability levels across the county. A reauthorized ESEA that mandates the types of activities supported by Race to the Top would be considered exceptionally strict on methods in addition to being potentially strong on outcomes.
It is much more likely, as the Ed Week article also suggests, that Race to the Top priorities will be used to strengthen existing ESEA competitive grant programs, such as State Longitudinal Data Systems grants, or create new ones. The Obama administration has already shown its commitment to such efforts via its support for the large fiscal year 2010 funding increases for programs like the Teacher Incentive Fund and Charter School Grants.
Another likely area for significant change in ESEA is the comparability provision of Title I, which attempts to ensure that state and local funds are evenly distributed among schools within a school district.
The administration’s focus on teacher distribution suggests that they will support strengthening the provision to include pay variation based on years of experience when determining whether funds and teachers are equally distributed across schools. While such a change will be unpopular with teacher’s unions, it will encourage a redistribution of teachers and open the doors for career ladders and other ways of differentiating teacher pay. (You can read more about this issue here.)
Of course, it’s possible that the Obama administration has changed its mind and will support a stricter version of ESEA moving forward that mandates methods like those proposed in Race to the Top. But both Congress and state officials are unlikely to appreciate or approve of such efforts that would require drastic changes to both local and state education laws and practices.