Lead or Get Out of the Way on Schools

From managing our nation’s finances to designing policies that create more jobs for America’s workers and graduates, federal leaders are consumed by capital related decisions.

But education must be a top priority. It nurtures our most precious natural resource – the human capital of the skills and talents of our young people.

Improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is a good start. This must, however, put students first, support effective teachers and continue to hold everyone accountable for results.

Thanks, in part, to reforms passed a decade ago; student achievement across the nation has improved. On the Nation’s Report Card’s main tests, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scored gains in 49 of 50 states. But much work still must be done to equip students for a dynamic, global workforce.

Yet ESEA reauthorization has all but stalled, creating enormous uncertainty for our schools, teachers and students.

For example, the act requires states to reach 100 percent proficiency on state academic tests by 2014. But even with exemptions, the states showing the most rapid improvement will not meet this mark.

Some state leaders have responded to Washington’s inaction by announcing they will ignore the law’s provisions. Others have simply lowered exam passing thresholds to technically – but shamefully – comply. Reductions of this sort are tragic, since many state standards are already too low.

Without reauthorization, Education Secretary Arne Duncan should use existing waiver authority to provide regulatory relief, so leading states can pass reforms that deliver results for students. States like Indiana, Florida and others provide a clear template.

Not all states should be given this flexibility. The bar should be set high, with greater flexibility rewarded only to states that implement bold reforms that improve the quality of education and student achievement.

This could free states moving from “pass/fail” to an A-F school grading system, based on student proficiency and academic growth. A-F systems are more intuitive to parents and the public. They also help leaders to clearly differentiate rewards and interventions for schools.

Florida, for example, pioneered the practice of awarding schools letter grades based on a balanced formula of student proficiency and learning gains — with an emphasis on the advances made by the lowest performing students.

Policymakers in Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah have adopted similar plans, while others are now looking at it.

Duncan should also consider rewarding states with the highest levels of transparency with greater flexibility.

Research now proves what parents and students knew: the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in student achievement. The education bill requires “high qualified teachers” – but measured only by teacher credentials.

Many states and school districts are now adopting more advanced data systems, linking student performance to teachers. For the first time, we can measure teacher effectiveness using transparent objectives and standards.

Washington should embrace this reform — giving states that measure teacher quality based on student learning, flexibility from regulations.

Washington can also include waivers and incentives in the education bill so it can encourage states to expand educational choice and digital learning. Today’s students deserve new, innovative approaches to education.

States can use digital learning to offer every student an education environment tailored to their learning pace and style. Students trapped in a failing school should be offered the lifeline to success that educational choice provides.

Some in Washington argue that these waivers permit the Executive Branch to legislate a congressional bill. The way to address this concern is to ensure that regulatory relief is only granted in exchange for advancing real reform. The states receiving this relief can help inform the education reauthorization process when it is taken up by Congress.

Washington’s inaction should not prevent governors, state chiefs and district leaders from implementing the next generation of reforms for our students. If DC won’t act, it should at least support those that are.

This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. Our nation’s destiny is at stake. As policy and funding discussions take place, leaders in both parties must work together to reward what matters most: student achievement.

– Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, is a new contributor to the EdNext blog.

This article originally appeared on Politico.

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