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Viewpoint: School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

AASA advocates ‘to ensure that no additional harm is done by well-meaning legislators who do not realize the potential havoc their actions will wreak upon an already overburdened [education
(Editor’s note: This article appeared in the “Learning Leadership” section of the March 2011 edition of eSchool News.)

The American Association of School Administrators’ mission has evolved into an advocacy role. As the oldest and largest organization representing school superintendents and other school system leaders, AASA now sees its primary function as the voice of school administrators in the nation’s capital. In fulfillment of that function, AASA’s Executive Committee and Governing Board met at the National Conference on Education in Denver last month to approve the association’s legislative agenda.

Advocating on behalf of public education is critical at a time when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is due to be reauthorized, and our public system of education seems to be under constant attack from the media and self-appointed “reformers.” Regardless of the opinion those outside of education might hold, it is those of us who have long worked within the system who know it best and can bring about the changes that will lead to a high-quality education for all of our children.

To those critics who would point a finger and say, “Then why haven’t you made those changes,” we would respectfully suggest that they join us in changing or eliminating the myriad of federal, state, and local laws, rules, and regulations that have set the antiquated stage upon which educational acts take place.

Consequently, we advocate to ensure that no additional harm is done by well-meaning legislators and regulators who do not realize the potential havoc their actions will wreak upon an already overburdened system. We point to No Child Left Behind as a specific example. Although there were positive elements to that law, such as the reporting on the performance of sub-categories of students so that we could all see the sins covered by a school-wide average, the overemphasis on standardized testing and the metrics behind Adequate Yearly Progress have even led the president of the United States to refer to NCLB as a “flawed law.”

Along those lines, if ESEA is not reauthorized this year, then we beg the administration to use its regulatory power to grant significant relief from the punishments bestowed upon schools that fail to make AYP. Choice and Supplementary Educational Services are costly and have not proven to be workable solutions, but more and more schools will be forced to adopt them as the number of schools not making AYP increases.

We support the Common Core Standards but warn Congress and the Department of Education not to interfere in their development or adoption. The department did just that by stipulating their adoption or “something similar” as a requirement for Race to the Top funding. No question that the United States will be hard-pressed to be globally competitive with 50 set of standards going against nations that only have one.

We object to the use of ESEA dollars to finance competitive grants. ESEA funds should be carefully targeted and delivered entirely through formulas based on the percentage of poverty in a school system. The percentage of poverty should be determined by free and reduced-price lunch costs. We believe that was the intent of Congress when the law was passed back in the mid-60s.

We object to the growing intrusion of the federal government into the decision-making process at the local level. NCLB brought federal intrusion to an unprecedented level, but the current administration has taken it a step further by implementing policy through its requirements for receiving stimulus-funded grants at a time when states and school systems were desperate for dollars. We believe that the jurisdiction of ESEA regulations, guidance, and evaluations should be limited to ESEA programs, and required federal approval of state regulations and statutes beyond ESEA programs as a condition of receiving ESEA funds should be prohibited. The federal government’s role should be to supplement and support, not dictate the policies and responsibilities of local school districts.

For years, the concern over unfunded mandates has grown. School systems should not be required to spend state and local dollars to fund federal mandates. If there are to be reductions in federal support, then they must be accompanied by a commensurate reduction of the federal mandates. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a case in point. The federal government has never lived up to its promise to fund IDEA at 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure. We urge for full funding of IDEA. School districts should be allowed to reduce local effort by up to 100 percent of any federal funding increase. We advocate for the maintenance of the services we now offer our special-needs children, and we want the federal government to pay its fair share.

NCLB rightfully brought school system accountability to the forefront of the public’s attention. What happened behind classroom doors became very visible as the performance of school districts and every school within that district became a matter of public record. The achievement gap that has always existed between white middle-class students and children of poverty, language and ethnic minorities, and special-needs students was now measured and out there for the world to see. Schools with a high average performance had to acknowledge that sub-groups of students within the building were performing well below the average.

The metrics that uncovered the achievement gap, however, were simplistic and convenient. They focused on performance in two areas of the curriculum, language arts and math, measured by standardized, fill-in-the bubbles tests that were cheap to develop and easy to administer.

As schools began to feel the pressure of accountability, specifically in two areas of the curriculum, some began to narrow the curriculum to focus on the areas to be tested and began to teach to the test. Episodes of cheating became more prevalent, and some states began to game the system by lowering the cut points on the state tests to better meet the NCLB requirements for AYP. This is the phenomenon that Education Secretary Arne Duncan referred to when he accused the educational system of lying to parents and students relative to their true achievements. Evidence of this is apparent in the comparison of state performance on their own tests versus their performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, otherwise known as the “nation’s report card.”

The reauthorized ESEA must maintain the high level of accountability that NCLB introduced but must replace the metrics with a more comprehensive, valid, and reliable system of evaluating student performance. That can begin by separating the assessment that is done for purposes of accountability from the necessary assessment that must be done on a regular basis to inform instruction. Growth measures that assess the performance of the same student from year to year should be used. Assessment tools that will be valid and reliable for use with special-needs students and English language learners should be developed. There should be a shift from emphasizing punishment in accountability to building capacity and rewarding success.

We believe that the lowest-performing schools in each state should be targeted for extra assistance and funding, but we support a broad range of turnaround models that include flexibility and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.

We believe that the accountability for the effectiveness of teachers and administrators is a responsibility of state government and local school districts, and not the federal government.

There is much more to our legislative agenda, and I refer those interested to our web site at Although I have focused here mostly on areas of disagreement with the status quo, there are many changes that have been put forth by the Department of Education that we support, such as plans to consolidate funding sources to provide schools systems with greater flexibility, a reward structure for school systems meeting their goals, and a more comprehensive system of accountability emphasizing growth measures.

The current administration has been very approachable and has consistently demonstrated its willingness to engage our members in constructive dialogue. This is very encouraging and conveys a sense that it isn’t afraid to involve “traditional” reformers in the process of transforming our schools.

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

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