ESEA Turns 50: What Can We Learn About School Improvement?


June 4, 2015


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) turned 50 on April 11, 2015. The law is our nation’s primary mechanism for distributing federal funds to schools and for guiding improvement efforts, especially in schools with high percentages of low-income students.

I, too, turn 50 in 2015. As I type this blog, I squint at my computer screen through my new trifocals. If I do not have the bright and chubby promise I did in 1965, I certainly hope I am wiser. One strategy I use to increase my wisdom is to learn from history.

This month, I read Jack Jennings’ Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform to enrich my understanding of ESEA history. Jack served on the hill as a Congressional staffer and then as General Counsel from 1967 to 1994. He then headed the DC education research organization, Center on Education Policy, CEP. Full disclosure here, I share some of Jack’s history. I worked for him as a consultant at CEP from around 2002 until his retirement in 2012.

What I find fascinating in Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools is Jack’s personal insight into the people and pressures that shaped federal school improvement policies. While I was learning my letters in a Title I-funded school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jack worked with Congressional leaders to craft and pass legislation that impacted my school’s funding and later determined how my school would be judged.

If we learn from our history, we may be in a better position to improve the future. Jack’s recommendations for the future are based on lessons from the past. Jack argues for new legislation, which he calls the “United for Students Act.” This new legislation would phase out ESEA entirely over the next 10 years. Am I convinced? Maybe. This proposal is certainly worth debating.

In another suggestion for a productive mid-life turnaround for education, Jack details how to overturn San Antonio Independent School District vs Rodriguez, the Supreme Court ruling that held that a right to an education was not protected in our Constitution. At the same time, Jack advocates for a Constitutional amendment that guarantees every person’s right to education. Both these suggestions sound good to me, although the work involved would be considerable.

My own addition

I want to push a little farther. I noticed in Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools that policymakers often made decisions without gathering data through research, and sometimes simply didn’t make use of the research data that did exist, as in Reagan’s response to A Nation at Risk.

As we transform ESEA—moving it out of its middle age slump and into a productive future—I want to advocate for research, both rigorous studies of school improvement efforts and descriptive studies that give leaders information about how educators in classrooms are reacting to reforms. My goal would be to create feedback loops that provide information to state and federal leaders about how their reforms are implemented, how the reforms are viewed by practitioners, and what impact the reforms have.

Creating these feedback loops would require thinking ahead and implementing reforms in ways that allow for comparison groups (i.e., schools that are and are not implementing the reforms) and incorporating more data collection. This type of practical research would help ensure that reforms and policies are well implemented and updated as needed.

Not everyone will agree with my suggestion or with Jack’s. The important thing is to build the future based on lessons from the past. After 50, how can we act on all we’ve learned?