Panelists discuss education policy at first Buechner Breakfast event of academic year at CU Denver

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) espoused the lofty goal of lifting children out of poverty. But as the act evolved, its regulatory complexity began to constrain the ability of states and school districts to hit that mark.

That is among the findings of a study produced by researchers at the Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs Buechner Institute for Governance and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Study findings and the wider issue of ESEA reauthorization were discussed Friday in “ESEA Left Behind?” the first Buechner Breakfast First Friday of the new academic year. About 150 people attended the breakfast featuring the panel of: Rosemary Rodriguez, state director of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office; Elaine Gantz Berman, Colorado State Board of Education; Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools; and Mary Wickersham, CEPA director in the Buechner Institute for Governance. The panel was moderated by Paul Teske, dean of the CU Denver School of Public Affairs and interim director of the Buechner Institute for Governance.

Teske explained that Congress has reauthorized ESEA every six to seven years, with the latest iteration, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, passed in 2002. The act had a six-year lifespan and has since operated via continuing resolutions because Congress has not agreed on reauthorization.

Rodriguez said reauthorization versions have been crafted in the U.S. House and Senate which will, as a next step, come together in conference committee. “Both bodies will work to build these very different versions of the bill together,” she said. “That’s going to be very hard because they are so different.”

Wickersham looked back at how the NCLB, a student outcomes-based model, evolved out of the original ESEA. The initial law was inputs-based, meaning it was designed to deliver money to low-income students in low-income school districts. The NCLB, meanwhile, set a goal universal proficiency for students by 2014 and uses a complex system of standards and accountability to measure proficiency. “We have this clash between the goals of the current (NCLB) and all of the fiscal regulations that were put in place just to deliver money.”

Because reauthorization remains in limbo, the U.S. Department of Education has offered waivers which allow states to flexibility to move beyond the NCLB, Gantz Berman said. Colorado was one of the first states to tinker with teacher evaluations, revised standards, assessments, turnaround schools and other issues school officials found burdensome about NCLB.

“The waivers seem to be giving the state and school districts the flexibility they want and need around the law,” Gantz Berman said. “If we can make permanent what we have in the waivers, with some tinkering for improvement, I think the school districts by and large will be very pleased with that outcome.”

Stevenson said some aspects of NCLB have been helpful, such as disaggregation of data and managing programs for various student subgroups, such as English-language learners. “But we need to get back to that focus on results, as opposed to telling us how to do it. Judge us on results.”

NCLB’s top-down model of telling educators how to do their work — as well as annual progress systems that deem schools as “needing improvement” even if 90 percent of targets are reached — have damaged the morale of teachers who “are working their hearts out.”

“We have a lot of healing to do at the ground level,” Stevenson said. “…I think we have a lot of time-consuming regulations that make no difference for children. If those can be corrected I think changes in law and policy would be appropriate.”

Gantz Berman said a national standard of assessment is necessary. “We need to all agree on setting the bar an how we’re going to measure whether students have reached that bar,” she said. “If we as a country and as politicians can agree on that, I think everything else would be more or less straightforward.”

The intent of the CEPA study is to inform, from the Colorado perspective, the ESEA reauthorization conversation, Wickersham said. Researchers compiled a statewide survey of local superintendents and finance directors, as well as interviews with U.S. Department of Education and Colorado Department of Education officials. They also conducted in-depth case studies of two local school districts — one in Aurora and the other in the small town of Strasburg. To read the study summary, click here.

Stevenson said she’s in favor of this fall’s school finance ballot measure, which would raise $950 million for Colorado’s K-12 schools and restructure school finance. If passed, the measure would get Jeffco Schools, the state’s largest school district, to 2009 levels of state funding, she said.

She said it’s a tough sell with the general population, but she believes that 100 percent of public school students can be successful. “If we as a community can come together and believe that — and can garner the resources and the force of will — I think we can get there,” Stevenson said. “Do I think we’ll be there in 2014? No, probably not. It’s the measurement — how much are kids growing? — and then it’s adjusting the system to match the needs of the children.”

The Jeffco superintendent received applause from the full Terrace Room when she said, “If we don’t hold that (expectation of success) out there, I can tell you for sure we’re not going to get there.”

(Photo: Pictured from left to right are Mary
Wickersham, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, Buechner
Institute for Governance; Rosemary Rodriguez, state director, Office of U.S.
Sen. Michael Bennet; Elaine Gantz Berman, Colorado State Board of Education;
and Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.)

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