For India White, going to college was a dream — and one that wasn’t assured. The ninth of 10 children in her family, India grew up poor and lived in a homeless shelter for a period of time. For many disadvantaged students, circumstances like these can be so overwhelming that education often becomes a casualty of the struggle simply to make it through each day. But with the help of an innovative mentoring program called Take Stock in Children, India persevered, graduated from high school, received a degree from the University of Florida and is now a teacher in Hillsborough County.
No young person’s destiny should be determined by whether she woke up in a homeless shelter, a migrant laborers’ camp or a leafy suburb. Every young person should have access to the opportunities that a world-class education can bring.
More than 24,000 students in Florida have benefited from Take Stock in Children, including some who are supported by a federal innovation grant to boost college enrollment for high-needs students. Recent data show the program is working, with 96 percent of participating high school graduates enrolled in college.
But, efforts to expand innovative intervention programs and educational opportunity could be at risk, amid a distressing debate over renewing America’s most important education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
ESEA stands as America’s statement that a high-quality education for every child is a national interest, and a civil right. The law has boosted funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, put books in libraries and helped ensure that students with disabilities, those learning English, minorities and those living in poverty — like India once was — don’t slip through the cracks.
Amid a bipartisan agreement to focus strongly on students’ learning, there has been significant progress. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to enroll in college. Just since 2008, there are a million more Hispanic and black students in college.
Yet some Republicans in Congress are questioning steps to expand educational opportunity and innovation.
Few would question that No Child Left Behind — the most recent version of ESEA — needs to be replaced. While the attention NCLB brought to the needs of vulnerable student groups was valuable, its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators.
Recently, I laid out core ideas for a new law that ensures real opportunity. That law must expand support and funding for schools and teachers — President Obama’s budget calls for $2.7 billion in new funding for ESEA, with offsets to ensure we don’t go back to taxpayers for a dime.
A new ESEA must expand access to quality preschool. It must help modernize teaching, through improved supports and preparation. And it must continue to enable parents, educators and communities to understand student progress from annual assessments — and ensure that where students are falling behind, and where schools fail students year after year, improvement will happen.
But we must ensure that tests — and test preparation — don’t take excessive time away from instruction. Great teaching, not test prep, engages students and leads to higher achievement.
In many places, too many tests that take up too much time. We want to work with Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and district-wide standardized testing, to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests they’re giving, eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests and provide support to do so.
All of these steps will help accelerate student progress, strengthen opportunity for all, and ensure greater economic security for our nation. Unfortunately, some on Capitol Hill would push ESEA in a different direction. Here’s what I believe is vital — and where I hope we will come to bipartisan agreement:
▪ Should we ensure that hard-working educators have the funding and resources they need to do their vitally important jobs? As a nation, we must say Yes.
▪ After years of progress, do we need annual statewide indicators of what progress all students are making? As a nation, we must say Yes.
▪ Should funds intended for high-poverty schools actually go to those schools? We must say Yes.
▪ Should we do more to ensure that all families have access to quality preschool? We must say Yes.
I am optimistic about reaching bipartisan agreement on a bill that holds true to the promise of real opportunity — for children in Miami, in India’s classroom, throughout Florida, and across the nation.
Arne Duncan is secretary of education. Information about ESEA is available at ed.gov/esea.