Obama's ESEA Blueprint Continues Emphasis on Assessment

Once again invoking the mantra of school reform, President Obama this weekend released his new "Blueprint" for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), calling for the transformation of American K-12 education into a "world-class" system that will "ensure that every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career." But even before its presentation to Congress Monday, the Blueprint received scathing criticism from one major education group--the National Education Association (NEA), which has 3.2 million-members.

Called "A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," the document outlines several means for achieving college and career readiness, the narrowing of the achievement gap, and the fostering of new programs to improve student outcomes, though it falls far short of the previously released draft of the National Education Technology Plan (NETP), which advocated far more sweeping changes to American education, such as the elimination of age-based grades.

The Blueprint, by contrast, focuses largely on principles found in the previous reauthorization of ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but with some shift in emphasis. For example, like NCLB, the Obama Blueprint focuses heavily on "accountability" for students, teachers, and institutions through testing, but its stated purpose is for "rewarding success" rather than punishing failure. It calls for supports to help foster and develop "highly effective" teachers. It looks to make use of formative assessments to "inform classroom instruction." And it demands a shift in the focus of high-stakes testing to include standards for college and career readiness.

Overall, the Blueprint focuses on five stated objectives or priorities:

  1. Producing college- and career-ready students through higher standards for all students, improved assessments, and a more broad academic program;
  2. Developing and fostering more effective students and principals by "recognizing, encouraging, and rewarding excellence"; making access to effective teachers for equitable; and improving preparation, recruitment, and support for teachers and principals;
  3. Fostering equality and opportunity for all students through "rigorous and fair accountability"; providing rewards for improving student outcomes; and supporting programs to help better meet the needs of all students, including ELL students and disabled students;
  4. Raising standards and rewarding excellence through "innovative" reforms (via Race to the Top); expanding public school options through institutions like charter schools and "other autonomous public schools"; and improving access to accelerated courses (including university courses); and
  5. Promoting improvements and innovations continuously through federal programs like the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) and other means.

President Obama, in his introductory remarks to the Blueprint, explained: "This effort will also require our best thinking and resources--to support innovative approaches to teaching and learning; to bring lasting change to our lowest-performing schools; and to investigate and evaluate what works and what can work better in America's schools. Instead of labeling failures, we will reward success. Instead of a single snapshot, we will recognize progress and growth. And instead of investing in the status quo, we must reform our schools to accelerate student achievement, close achievement gaps, inspire our children to excel, and turn around those schools that for too many young Americans aren't providing them with the education they need to succeed in college and a career."

However, not everyone in education is sold on the version of this vision outlined in the President's Blueprint. The National Education Association, which has, to date, refrained largely from public criticism of the Obama administration's education policies, issued a statement Saturday denouncing the continued emphasis on standardized testing and what it referred to as just another "top-down" approach to education reform, rather than a collaborative effort.

In a written statement, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said he was "disappointed" by the administration's first effort to "rectify the considerable problems" in federal law.

"What excited educators about President Obama's hopes and vision for education on the campaign trail has not made its way into this blueprint," he said. "We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids. Instead, the accountability system of this 'blueprint' still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the 'blueprint' requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario. We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative. Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration."

He continued: "The public knows that struggling schools need a wide range of targeted actions to ensure they succeed, and yet the Administration's plan continues to call for prescriptions before the actual problems are diagnosed. We need proven answers along with the deep insight of the experienced professionals who actually work in schools."

The complete statement can be found here. The complete ESEA Blueprint can be downloaded in PDF format here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .