Their View: Return to, nurture roots of education

I love history. I adored my social studies textbooks as a child. I read the entire book of “Roots” in 7th grade because I was named after one of the main characters. I am a history nerd.

I have been especially interested in the civil rights movement and war on poverty. As a biracial female growing up in poverty, I longed for the heroes that looked like me. I found bonding with women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm.

These women and their roles in these movements helped me become the woman that I am today. The biggest and most important of outcome of both of these movements turns fifty in the next few days: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Now on the 50th anniversary, Congress is taking up a reauthorization of this law. It is time that this law returns to its original purpose. The goal of ESEA was to make sure that students had a quality public education, regardless of zip code or color of skin.

Isn’t No Child Left Behind the law that gave us the current testing regime that our children currently live under? Yes and no. No Child Left Behind stems from ESEA but NCLB is vastly different from what the original framers of ESEA intended it to be.

Short history lesson: President Lyndon Johnson originally authorized ESEA in 1965. Johnson, who believed “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal” signed this act into law as part of the war on poverty.

At that time, many parts of this country were struggling to undo the effects of segregated schools and it was viewed that education was the way out of the poverty cycle. Originally, ESEA provided grants to school districts that served low-income students for supplies, special education centers and scholarships. Most importantly, the law provided federal grants to states to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education.

In 2002, a bipartisan Congress reauthorized the law. Its new aim was to prevent students from falling through cracks in the educational system by adding measurable standards to the law and setting an objective that all students are proficient, or college ready, by 2014. The focus shifted away from student learning and opportunity towards testing, labeling and punishing schools — with no significant closure of achievement or opportunity gaps.

Children are not a test score. Not all intelligences can be measured on a test. Success in life, quality school and quality teaching cannot be measured by a single snapshot assessment.

The National Education Association has called upon Congress to take up five priorities during this reauthorization. Among the priorities would be the development of an “opportunity dashboard” that would identify quality school indicators that support learning and exposes gaps. Based on that information, states would create plans to provide funding for resources to remediate the gaps. The new ESEA should also ensure that all students have access to a high quality early childhood education.

Congress is set to reauthorize ESEA/NCLB now. This time we need to tell Congress to get it right. A reauthorization of the ESEA is an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for a public education system that promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students. Please contact your congressional representatives and ask them to protect the civil rights of our children: get a reauthorized ESEA to the American people that value our students and schools.