Who Will Control Your Child’s Education?

What parents need to know now that No Child Left Behind is being dismantled

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Take a guess whose influence over America’s schools has increased most? Their decisions include what gets taught, what results get shared with parents and the public, what’s expected of teachers and students, and the role of testing. Local school boards? President Obama? Congress? Teachers unions? Business? Mayors? Guess again. If you don’t know the name and goals of your state superintendent of education, I’d recommend you read on carefully.

Last week, I testified before Congress on a bill passed by the U.S. Senate’s education committee to replace the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Today, state superintendents from across the U.S. travel to Washington to submit the first set of over 40 expected state applications in the Obama Administration’s process to waive key provisions of NCLB and lay out highlights of their education plans.

(MORE: Q & A: Education Secretary Arne Duncan Talks State Aid and No Child Left Behind)

While truly vital issues are still being debated both in Congress and in this waiver process, one thing is becoming clear: there is bipartisan support for empowering the states to achieve higher standards. Yes, others play key roles — and states have long had constitutional responsibilities for public education. But states will increasingly be making big decisions — sometimes individually but often with other states — previously made by textbook publishers, local school boards, and the federal government.

In this new relationship, states will institute rigorous academic standards reflecting and measuring true student readiness for college and careers. States will ensure transparency on performance and craft accountability systems with interventions for a subset of (poorly performing) schools.

In return, the federal government will loosen strings previously attached to federal education funding. And the feds will expand incentives for targeted reforms through competitive funding if either the bipartisan Senate bill or Obama Administration prevail.

This shift toward increased state power comes on the heels of unprecedented cooperation among governors and state superintendents to expand state influence on education nationally. Over the past 18 months, 45 states have agreed on new national (not federal) academic standards for college and career readiness. The impressive rigor and focus of these state-led, national standards can substantially increase the quality of what’s taught to our kids.

States are working together to design more useful tests measuring progress against those standards, and replacing inadequate, fill-in-the bubble multiple choice tests. This collaboration is pooling expertise while avoiding duplicating efforts. It provides crucial state-level leadership for an America where education is a state and local responsibility, but a national priority.

All of this means that America’s future will depend more than ever on your state superintendent, state board of education, legislators and governor. As parents and members of the public, what should we know — and what can we ask of our state leaders to truly lead?

First, find out the names of your state superintendent of education and write them letters. Invite the superintendent and board members to a meeting of parents and/or others in your community. Advocate for your views. Provide public support for a state superintendent and board taking strong steps.

Second, ask for higher expectations for students. While 45 states have adopted the standards described above, most states haven’t yet adopted the assessments to measure them. But academic standards simply sit on a shelf unless parents and educators can get useful, timely information on student progress toward achieving them. These assessments will help identify whether students in your family, local schools, and state are on track to readiness for careers and college.  Ask the superintendent for plans to make available high-quality curricula — and professional development for teachers — to help implement the standards.

(MORE: Are We Deluding Ourselves About Our Schools?)

Third, ask for smart, measurable goals for improved student outcomes. These should include but go beyond fair measures of improvement on better tests. States should set goals for big increases and closing gaps on key outcome measures such as kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading, high school graduation, college enrollment without remediation, post-secondary completion, and workforce readiness. The focus should be on students at all levels — from highest achieving to lowest-achieving — instead of NCLB’s focus on increasing the number of kids who meet the “proficiency” score on state tests. States can also pilot new goals for citizenship and character.

Fourth, ask your state how it will help local schools retain excellent teachers and principals, give all educators effective feedback and support, and take tough, fair steps to improve, counsel out or remove the typically small number of teachers and principals not serving students well. Ask state leaders how they’ll ensure high standards for teachers — and for the support that teachers receive. All of this is vital given that nearly 60% of in-school factors driving school improvement relate to the quality of teachers and principals.