AASA hopes educators and school reformers will work together to improve NCLB.

(Editor’s note: This article marks the debut of a new monthly column from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech on school leadership. It appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of eSchool News.)

From Feb. 17-19, the “Great Education Conversation” will take place in Denver as part of the American Association of School Administrators’ national conference. It will be a dialogue between traditional educators and those the media has branded as reformers.

Though we all share the same goal—providing our children with the best education possible—we differ as to the means to achieve that goal. AASA’s thinking is that we might be better off working together than at odds with each other. In line with that theme, the conference will be preceded by two days of “conversations” between superintendents, school board presidents, and labor union presidents, intent on advancing student achievement through improved labor-management relations. The event is being jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, AASA, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Great City Schools, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association; the Ford Foundation is underwriting this invitation-only event.

An important theme of the great conversation will be the future of education as determined by the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Obama administration’s success during the lame-duck session of Congress in December has given me renewed hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the reauthorization of ESEA might have a chance of passing this legislative session. In preparation for the discussions that will precede passage, I dug up my old, wrinkled, and frayed copy of the administration’s “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

Re-reading it for the umpteenth time reminds me there are many ideas in this document that I really like. We have been laboring for so long under the unreasonable and unrealistic demands of No Child Left Behind that we are anxious for changes in what President Obama refers to as a “flawed law” in his introduction to the Blueprint. Indeed, the president’s introduction speaks to the many changes that educators have looked forward to since passage of NCLB.

In laying a foundation for the changes that must take place, the president says, “The countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” This is a clear reference to the fact that the United States, once the leader of the world in college completion, now ranks 11th. The president wants to regain our leadership role in education, and so he sets a new goal: By the year 2020, the U.S. once again will lead the world in college completion.

At first, this seems a more achievable goal than NCLB’s task of having every school in America making Adequate Yearly Progress by 2014. At this stage of the game, it appears likely that most schools in America will have failed to make AYP by 2014, including many schools acknowledged to be among the best in the country. This anomaly has less to do with the quality of the school and more with the logistical requirements for making AYP. Thus, the need for change.

However, a close inspection of the president’s goal reveals how difficult his goal will be to achieve. The Blueprint is the plan for achieving the goal and ensures that “every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career.” That’s a mouthful, and we need to examine the three very significant components embodied in that quote.
We know for a fact that today, not every student graduates from high school. In fact, approximately one-third of our students are not graduating, and among that third are a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students. To get our high school graduation rate up to 100 percent is an impossible task for any year, let alone 2020. Consequently, a more realistic measure will have to be agreed upon as part of the reauthorization process.

Getting beyond the high school graduation piece—no small feat, mind you—we must next consider the “well prepared for college” component. If we assume, and we must based on the president’s goal, that well prepared implies graduating from college, we have even a steeper hill to climb. There is research in the works that strongly suggests that, when we reverse-engineer to the K-12 performance of college graduates, we see students taking a much more comprehensive and challenging curriculum than what the Common Core standards will produce. Getting students to stay and complete high school is challenging enough, but getting those same students to graduate from college will be the much bigger challenge.

The third piece refers to career ready, and this may well be the most viable solution to our dilemma, but there is not much emphasis on that component. Is this a reference to vocational education? In a recent conversation with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Duncan assured me that it is, but this needs to be clarified and reinforced.

We know that, perhaps for very legitimate reasons, vocational education has fallen out of favor. For many years, occupational education programs were the dumping ground for minority students. Today, we envision a world where every child is college-bound, even though the reality is that only about one-third of our students wind up with a college degree. And many of our students who do go to college and graduate from college are ill prepared for the workforce.

There is a good chance that many of the 30 percent of our students who drop out of high school would stay in school if they were learning a marketable skill that would lead to employment upon graduation. The very European nations that we unfavorably compare with on the international tests have a system of occupational and apprenticeship programs that have resulted in their having significantly lower youth unemployment rates than the U.S. Thus, there is a need for further refinement of what is meant by career ready. If we mean having a skill that leads to employment and possibly the completion of a postsecondary trades program, then our first task is to change the current culture that looks at occupational education as an inferior accomplishment to being college bound.

The Blueprint openly stipulates what many of us have realized in the absence of reauthorization: The administration used the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to push its policies forward without a single vote by Congress. Race to the Top, Investing In Innovation (I3) grants, and School Improvement Grants have all required adherence to the administration’s priorities for reform. Thus, states and local school districts have agreed to adopt the Common Core standards, institute the evaluation of principals and teachers based on student performance, consider pay for performance, fire principals and teachers, and more, to be eligible to receive federal competitive dollars.

Once ARRA funds are spent, the administration will need to rely on Congress’s approval of its education budget and the reauthorized ESEA, according to the Blueprint, to maintain its competitive programs. We have objected to the use of Title I funds for competitive grants because we feel that the intent of Title I has been to be the great equalizer to poverty. Formula funding ensures that all impoverished children receive funding equally, and not that some receive more because their districts have better grant writers.

But there are many aspects of the Blueprint that need immediate implementation, such as abolishing the current method of establishing AYP and moving towards more comprehensive assessments that measure growth. We need to eliminate the labeling of failure and instead reward success. We need to revise the federal role in education so that it is less intrusive in the local decision making process and more focused on providing the necessary resources to ensure that, for real, our black, Latino, and impoverished children are not being left behind.

Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.