07.16.15

Senate Passes Landmark Overhaul of Federal Education Law

Bill Puts an End to Flawed “No Child Left Behind” Law; Includes Several Provisions Authored by Sen. Whitehouse

Washington, DC – The U.S. Senate has passed landmark legislation overhauling federal education policy for elementary and secondary schools.  The Every Child Achieves Act, which passed by a vote of 81-17, eliminates the one-size-fits-all provisions of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law that placed too much emphasis on standardized test results and pressured teachers to “teach to the test.”  Instead, the bill allows communities, parents, and teachers to work together to improve schools using a variety of strategies that make sense for students.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) played a key role in crafting the bill as a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.  Throughout the drafting process, he conducted extensive outreach to Rhode Island teachers, reformers, students, school administrators, and union officials to solicit feedback and ideas.  The final bill passed today includes a number of provisions crafted by Whitehouse to respond to their needs and concerns.

“As I listened to Rhode Islanders on this issue, I heard the same things over and over again: we need to protect federal funding for local districts, give more control to teachers and local officials to design education plans, and get rid of high-stakes testing that has harmed students and teachers by placing far too much emphasis on test scores,” Whitehouse said.  “I’m proud that the bill we passed today addresses these concerns.  Our core goal is to provide all of our kids with the best possible education, and I’m confident that the changes made by this bill will result in real improvements in our schools.”

Under the Every Child Achieves Act, annual testing will remain in place for students in grades 3 through 8, and students will also be tested once during high school.  However, school funding and improvement strategies will no longer be tied strictly to test outcomes.  Instead, states and local districts will be empowered to consider a range of factors, including graduation rates, how many students are taking AP classes, incidents of violence and bullying, and even working conditions for teachers.

“Less classroom time spent on this frantic test preparation for the high-stakes exams means more time actually learning,” Whitehouse pointed out in a speech earlier this week.

The bill also includes a series of provisions crafted by Whitehouse to address specific Rhode Island priorities or problems identified by Rhode Island stakeholders.  The Whitehouse provisions include:

  • Middle school success.  This amendment will help to identify and support at-risk students in the middle grades – a key period in every child’s development when risk factors that could later derail their education can first be identified and addressed.  In particular, the amendment will encourage the use of student data on suspensions, attendance, and course performance to identify kids who might be more likely to ultimately drop out of school, and to provide them with tailored, evidence-based strategies to support their needs.
  • Strengthening afterschool programs through community partnerships.  Earlier this year Whitehouse partnered with Congressman David Cicilline on legislation to encourage school districts and community-based organizations to work together to improve the availability and quality of afterschool programming for students.  A version of their legislation was incorporated into the ESEA reauthorization.
  • Juvenile justice improvements.  Whitehouse included language in the bill to require states to improve outcomes for students who interact with the juvenile justice system.  Specifically, the Whitehouse provision will help to ensure that the needs of these children are properly assessed when they enter a juvenile justice facility, that they have access to appropriate education opportunities while they are in such a facility, and that the classroom credits they earn during their time in the juvenile justice system will transfer when they return to a regular school setting.  Overall, these policies are intended to ensure that troubled children who enter the juvenile justice system are given an opportunity to reform their behavior and get ahead, rather than being marginalized and falling further behind in their education. 
  • Innovation school pilot program.  This provision will establish a fast-track process for some schools to get relief from burdensome regulations that can serve as barriers to school-level innovation.  These so-called “innovation schools” will be empowered to do things like extend the school day for struggling students, take ownership over school budgeting and financing, or manage their school’s human resources.  To take part in the program schools must demonstrate support from administrators, parents, and at least two-thirds of the current teaching staff.  They are encouraged to form advisory boards to bring community expertise from businesses, higher education, and community groups, among others, into school planning, operations and oversight.  And, importantly, innovation schools will remain part of their local school district, serving as laboratories for experimentation, the benefits of which can serve as a model for other schools in the district.
  • Addiction and recovery.  This amendment adds recovery support services to the list of things schools can do with federal grant funding authorized by the overall bill.  It will help ensure that kids who have battled addiction and are in recovery can access recovery support services through their schools.
  • History and civics.  There are provisions to authorize grants for an American History and Civics program.  Grants can also be used to develop innovative, scalable approaches to teaching civics to low-income students and underserved populations.  For example, this could include hands-on civic engagement activities for students.
  • Libraries and literacy (done in partnership with Jack Reed).  This provision authorizes funding to provide grants to state and local education agencies to increase student access to up-to-date school library materials, well-equipped, technologically advanced school library media centers, and well-trained, professionally certified school library media specialists.  It would also support arts-related community and national outreach programs, as well as programs that provide arts educators with professional development to develop high-quality arts-based instructional programming.
  • Talented students.  Senator Whitehouse supported this provision, based on Senator Mikulski’s TALENT Act, to help ensure that the unique needs of high-ability learners are supported by teachers, schools, and states.

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