Senate measure aims
to empower states

Since it expired in 2007, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has been withering on the congressional vine, awaiting reauthorization, reinvention or repurposing. In the meantime, states that previously were feeling hamstrung by the unattainable requirements of the federal law are setting out on their own – with federal oversight.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate introduced a revamped version of the measure, and in so doing, it set the course for finally fixing the act’s shortcomings and providing clarity and autonomy for states to craft their educational systems. It is a good start, with much work to follow.

The new measure would make official the informal but increasingly common relationship between states and the federal Department of Education wherein states craft their own requirements and plans for improvement and receive federal approval for those systems.

Already, 37 states have received waivers from the national standards stipulated under the last iteration of No Child Left Behind, given because the standards – primarily those stipulating annual progress to the point that all students in all states were proficient in all subject areas – were unrealistic.

The new measure would formalize the state-by-state approach, with some important over-arching requirements, including that states measure their students to determine what, whether, how and to what extent they are learning. That is a critical component of effective education, and as frustrating as teachers, parents and students can find testing to be, it is a necessary tool. The Senate bill, however, adds other measuring devices to the mix, including projects, presentations or portfolios. That broader framework gives a nod to different learning and teaching models that can be as effective or more so than more traditional approaches.

There is a great political distance to travel before the Senate’s bill becomes law, most formidable of which is a discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives among whose Republican majority the notion of federal control over education is unimpressive, but the measure takes a healthy first bite at the process.

Regardless of political ideology, there must be some shared standards of what students are taught, and what they know after their journey through the public-education system.

Allowing room for different communities to fine-tune what and how those subjects are conveyed is important, but setting a high bar for achievement and mastery of critical subjects is crucial to Americans’ future success, and that of their country. For that, there must be some underlying standards to which everyone is held.

The act also can be used to impart key values, and the Senate version does so by requiring schools to protect gay and lesbian students from discrimination or bullying or else face funding implications. That is an important message to send and, in enforcing it, schools will create environments more conducive to learning – academic and social.

The Strengthening America’s Schools Act is a good start at a long and much-needed conversation. The values it embodies are critical to the country’s future.