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Harkin Discusses Education Reform on Senate Floor

WASHINGTON – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, spoke on the Senate floor to discuss his ongoing efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and in doing so, move beyond the law’s most recent iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act.  Last month, the HELP Committee approved a bipartisan bill that will set high expectations for all children to graduate from high school ready for college and careers, support teachers and principals to help them provide high-quality instruction, focus resources on disadvantaged students, and fix the ineffective “one size fits all” approach created by NCLB.  

Below are his full remarks as prepared for delivery:

“I would like to take this opportunity to talk about a bipartisan bill that was recently passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, which I chair. This bipartisan bill reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and would replace its current iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“I want to start with a few words about the federal role in education in this country since ESEA is a key part of that role.  While it is certainly true that education is primarily a state and local function, the federal government plays an important role, and a well-educated citizenry is clearly in the national interest.  A central federal role is to ensure all Americans, regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion and disability have the same equal opportunity to a good education as any American citizen.  Likewise, the Constitution expressly states that our national government was formed specifically to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”  The general welfare is greatly endangered when the populace is not adequately educated.  And, education is critical to liberty.  As Frederick Douglass so eloquently noted, education “means emancipation.  It means light and liberty.” 

“It is no surprise that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 expressly stated that “schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.”   That law encouraged new territories to establish schools. The federal government also encouraged States to establish public colleges and universities through the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided federal land to states to establish “land-grant colleges” that offered agricultural and engineering courses.

“Moving into the 20th century, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill, provided grants to World War II veterans to pursue a college education. In 1954, the Supreme Court struck down laws endorsing racial segregation in public schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia in the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision. And in 1958, Congress authorized the National Defense Education Act, the first federal loan program to students for higher education, which was later followed by the Higher Education Act of 1965 and Federal Pell grants, enacted in 1972.

“ESEA was passed in 1965 and provided aid to states and school districts to improve education for children from low-income families, and in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to assist states and districts in educating children with disabilities.

“In 1994, Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), which updated ESEA to focus on accountability for school improvement. And in 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which went even further than IASA in terms of what it required of schools receiving federal funds.

“As you can see, the federal role in education spans over two hundred years, and its primary objective has been to increase educational opportunity and enhance educational attainment.  This context is important to any discussion of the reauthorization of ESEA.

“The original goal of ESEA was to provide additional resources to schools with the most disadvantaged students.  This funding was needed because many states and districts use education funding formulas that provide fewer resources to high poverty schools.  Given that educating poor students actually requires more resources, not fewer, Title I was our attempt to create a better and more equitable education system.  Title I of ESEA has never fully realized that goal, but it has served as a significant source of funding to our most impoverished schools leading to more educational opportunity for low-income students over the last forty years. 

“In the early 1990s a national consensus emerged around the idea that, for the United States to maintain competitive in the global economy, our education system needed significant improvements.  Foremost among these was the movement for “standards-based reform” – the idea that statewide academic standards, and assessments aligned with those standards, was a key lever for ensuring that all students received a good education.  To that end, the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA required that states have one educational accountability system for all students—including racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and English learners.  Along with Goals 2000, it also required that states put in place standards and assessments so that we would actually know how students were doing.

“During the next reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act, lawmakers felt compelled to be more prescriptive with states to ensure that they improved their low-performing schools and focused on closing pernicious student achievement gaps. Therefore, NCLB defined “adequate yearly progress” for schools and districts; it required districts to implement public school choice and supplemental educational services in schools identified for improvement and set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds for these activities; it included a list of rigorous interventions for schools in corrective action and an additional category of “restructuring” for the most chronically low-performing schools with even more severe consequences attached—except for one loophole, which I will refer to later in my remarks.

“And what was the result of this more heavy-handed and prescriptive version of ESEA?

  • The Proficiency Illusion, a 2007 report by the Fordham Institute, found that state definitions of student proficiency varied erratically and comparisons across states were not valid.
  • A new term was coined in education, “the hockey stick.” In reaction to the 2014 proficiency deadline, states backloaded the student gains needed to reach this goal in the shape of a hockey stick laying on its side, which is why so many more schools are now failing to make adequate yearly progress across the country as we approach 2014.
  • Districts responded to the new restructuring category, designed for chronically under-performing schools, by choosing the least prescriptive (and some would say weakest) option, “Any other major restructuring of the school’s governance designed to produce major reform.” In effect, districts could do as much, or as little, as they wanted in these severely underperforming schools.
  • The law drove a critical transparency and focus on the performance of student subgroups, but its prescriptiveness also led to a culture of compliance, not innovation.

“Given this history, we now must ask what the next reauthorization of ESEA should look like.  Should the federal government come down even harder on states and districts?

“I believe strongly that we must maintain a robust federal role.  In looking at the most recent NAEP scores, we see that more than half of the students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch scored “below basic” on the 4th grade reading assessment, as compared to only 17% of students who were not eligible. On the 8th grade mathematics assessment, almost half (49%) of black students scored “below basic,” as compared to only 16% of white students.  Our economy, ethics and democracy all demand that the federal government continue to have a strong role in ensuring an educated citizenry.  But just as the federal role has evolved from federal land grants to student Pell grants, we must be willing to shift to new approaches when the old ones aren’t working.   If federal adequate yearly progress and intervention requirements for all schools were the best national education policy could ever do, then I would have expected to see a lot more progress in student achievement over the last decade.  I believe that No Child Left Behind is not the pinnacle of federal education laws and that we can and must strive to do better. 

“Our bipartisan bill follows a different course, one of a more strategic partnership with states and districts within federal parameters.   In making this move it is important to note how states have stepped up to the standards and accountability plate in recent years.  In 2009, the Common Core State Standards Initiative was launched, a state-led effort to develop high-quality standards that are common across states. These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. Thus far, forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the English language arts standards, and forty-five states have adopted the math standards.

“In 2011, the Council of Chief State School Officers released its accountability principles for next generation accountability systems that have since been endorsed by 45 states. These principles include setting performance goals for all schools and districts aligned to college- and career-ready standards; measuring student outcomes based on status and growth; differentiating between schools and districts, and providing supports and interventions; and targeting the lowest performing schools for significant interventions. States also committed through these principles to doing deeper diagnostic reviews as appropriate - looking at more than just student test scores and high school graduation rates - to better link accountability determinations to meaningful supports and interventions.

“These commitments by the states have led me to believe that we may be entering an era in which the federal government can work in partnership with states to improve our nation’s schools, while continuing to provide a backstop to avoid returning to old ways.  And, that is what the bipartisan bill passed by the HELP Committee last month does.

“This bill in many ways resembles the ESEA Blueprint released by Secretary Duncan almost two years ago. It gets rid of AYP, but sets federal parameters for state designed accountability systems. These systems must cover all students, including students with disabilities and English learners; continue to measure and report on the performance of all schools; expect continuous improvement for all schools and subgroups of students; and provide for interventions in low-performing schools or schools with low-achieving student subgroups beyond the lowest performing five percent. State accountability plans are also subject to peer review and approval by the Secretary of Education, an important safeguard on the quality and integrity of these systems.

“The HELP Committee’s bill also sets the high bar of having students graduate from high school, college and career ready.  It tightens the federal focus on turning around persistently low-achieving schools and our nation’s dropout factories—those schools that graduate less than 60 percent of their students—as well as schools with significant student achievement gaps.

“Our bill takes the significant step of closing the “comparability loophole” so that funds provided through Title I of ESEA will finally serve as additional dollars for our neediest students, and Title I schools will get their fair share of federal resources. It also provides districts with more flexibility in how states and districts spend their federal funds while ensuring that the resources designated to serve our most disadvantaged students get to those students.   The bill incentivizes the development of rigorous and fair teacher and principal evaluation systems, and provides these critical school staff with the support they need to continually improve teaching and learning. It also leverages opportunities for more children to access high quality early learning programs and adds new protections for some of our most vulnerable children—homeless students and students in foster care—so that they will be better served by schools.

“Our bill strategically consolidates programs and focuses grant funds on a smaller number of programs to allow for greater flexibility and supports districts in extending the school day and year, strengthening their literacy, science, math or technology programs, fostering safe and healthy students, and offering a more well-rounded curriculum that includes the arts and physical education. It invests in effective programs to train and support principals and teachers for high need schools. And, it fosters innovation through new programs like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods.  

“As I have said a number of times over the past several weeks, I believe this is a very good bill and I am proud of our efforts.  The bill is the result of many months of bipartisan negotiation and, as such, it is a carefully crafted compromise.  It does not contain everything I want nor does it contain everything Senator Enzi wanted.  But it is, as currently written, a bill that moves us forward and beyond the punitive nature of No Child Left Behind.  Having said that, I also want to be clear that as this process moves forward, I believe it is crucial that we maintain the integrity and balance of this bipartisan compromise.  We owe it to our kids and our nation to produce a strong bill that will actually move the needle in improving our educational system.  That will be the barometer that will guide me as this process moves forward.

“To that end, I would note that historically, education policy in Congress has been done in a bipartisan fashion and I believe that the House must also maintain that approach.  Without a bipartisan bill coming out of the House, I believe it would be difficult to find a path forward that will draw the support we need from both sides of the aisle to be able to send a final bill to the President that advances education for America’s students.  Here in the Senate we have demonstrated that it is possible to reach bipartisan consensus despite the thorny issues in education.  We all need to work together in a bipartisan way to replace the No Child Left Behind Act with a new and better law. 

“With the reauthorization of ESEA, we are on the brink of change, and change is difficult. We must work to together to move from a culture of minimal compliance with federal requirements to one of shared innovation, shared responsibility and success for students.  I look forward to working towards this new partnership and to the next chapter of an effective federal role in promoting educational excellence and equity.  Thank you.”