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NCLB Gets an F. What’s Next in Your Child’s Classroom?

American Indian tribes could have a significant voice as the U.S. redefines the principles by which we will educate our children.

American Indian tribes could have a significant voice as the U.S. redefines the principles by which we will educate our children over the next several years.

Congress is working on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first major overhaul of national educational strategy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001. The 600-page bipartisan Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 was unanimously approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in April and is headed for the Senate floor. The House is working on its own version of the legislation.

“The Senate bill actually does more for tribes in Native education than any education bill has done in a very long time,” says Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, executive director of the National Indian Education Association. “This bill increases the role of tribes in state education plans and local education plans and that alone is going to be incredibly helpful because education is such a states rights issue.”

The current version of the bill moves many responsibilities that NCLB assigned to the federal government back to states, including developing and executing plans to improve low-achieving schools. One of the major ways in which NCLB failed was its mandate that all students be proficient in grade level reading and math by 2014. So many school districts were not going to meet that goal that the Department of Education began issuing waivers to states in 2011.

High stakes testing was another requirement of NCLB that met with strong resistance from educators and parents in some school districts. ECA keeps statewide annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, but allows states to decide what weight to give the results of those tests.

Standardized testing and rigorous standards—though not necessarily Common Core standards—are important to the AI/AN community, says Rose. “Our students are highly mobile, so having the opportunity to have [comparable] standards across the board is very important.” Under this legislation, states may develop their own standards or adopt the Common Core standards; the federal government will not be allowed to incentivize use of Common Core standards or the assessments based on them.

Standards are critical to ensuring that the main purpose of ESEA is achieved because ESEA is, at its core, a civil rights law, says Joy Silvern, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education.

Liz King, senior policy analyst and director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group of 200 civil rights organizations, says, “In the history of civil rights, the federal government plays a critical role in protecting vulnerable people and enforcing federal law. There are core protections that we believe need to be held by the federal government, especially the ability to review and approve state [education] plans, for example.”

The conference comes down firmly on the side of standardized assessments. “Without annual data [from testing] we’re going to lose the ability to identify specifically how Native students are doing in a lot of schools and districts. If we only have a couple of years of data there will not be enough Native students in some schools to be able to say this is how Native students are doing and this is how students who are not Native are doing. That’s a really important piece for us because in order to monitor whether there is equal educational opportunity, we need the ability to compare performance between different groups.”

The conference maintains, however, that making accountability a state responsibility is appropriate. “In terms of developing accountability systems and developing interventions to improve struggling schools and raise achievement for struggling students, we’re comfortable with that happening at the state level,” says King.

Though both the Leadership Conference and the NIEA say that this legislation is a very good start, they would like to see some improvements as the legislation moves forward. Among the provisions that could be improved, according to the conference, are increased federal oversight to make sure the law is being implemented properly, a requirement that states intervene in low-achieving schools to improve achievement, a requirement that states report disaggregated data, that is, data that shows how minorities, disabled students, ESL students and other groups are doing, and a requirement that states ensure resources are equitably distributed among schools and school districts.

Another issue that is expected to some up again is Title I portability. Some very conservative lawmakers want Title I dollars to follow students into charter schools, private schools or other schools rather than staying in the high-poverty schools where they were allocated. “We would oppose Title I portability,” says Rose.

And this is where the tribes come in. “Particularly on the Senate side, tribal communities are going to have a real impact on our ability to pass a really good law. [There are] key senators in places like Montana and the Dakotas—places where the civil rights community doesn’t have a huge presence, but we know that Native American communities are strong and are important constituencies,” says Scott Simpson of the Leadership Conference.

“All communities need to be involved,” says King. “We ask that readers get engaged, learn about the issues and discuss their perspective with their legislators.”