Nation at Risk. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. Every Student Succeeds. If we have learned nothing else over the past three decades, we have learned that words do not prepare students for success. Only a laser-like focus on student academic achievement will do the job.
For years the federal government tried to get states to focus on student achievement with limited success and significant pushback. Even when the states developed their own high academic standards, the federal government overreached, turning the Common Core Standards into a political football.
Now the pendulum is swinging back with the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act. This law, which received overwhelming bipartisan support except from most of the Idaho delegation, returns much of the control over education back to the states and limits federal control.
I have been asked if Every Student Succeeds is good or bad for student achievement. The answer is, it depends. Whether Every Student Succeeds actually succeeds or joins the trash heap of catchy slogans and good intentions depends on whether the states and local school leaders step up to the plate.
Idaho political and education leaders have clamored for control over education, telling the federal government to get out of their way. Now the proverbial ball is in their court. With local control comes local responsibility.
In Idaho you hear that the best government is the government closest to the people. That is generally true because no one knows or loves our state more than the people who live here. But there is also a strong anti-government-at-any-level strain in Idaho, which often makes it difficult to keep the other end of the bargain — taking responsibility.
That anti-government strain is even felt in something as fundamentally important as educating our children so they can take their rightful place as productive citizens and leaders.
Now that most control and responsibility for education has been turned back to the states, we cannot blame the federal government any longer for the lack of student achievement. We cannot pass the buck to someone else. We cannot kick the can down the road any longer.
It’s now the responsibility of the governor, legislature, State Department of Education, the State Board of Education, local educators and all of us to ensure that policies are put in place to support students and that they are implemented at the local level with fidelity.
The good news is that our state leaders have moved aggressively over the past two years to adopt policies that can prepare students for life. They have restored operating funds lost in the Great Recession, increased teachers’ standards and salaries, directed local school leaders to develop annual plans that drive student achievement, and made a down payment in helping students discern their academic and career future.
But we have a long way to go. We have not invested in getting children ready to read when they enter kindergarten, even though nearly half of our students are not prepared. We have not strengthened our reading laws so that all students can read proficiently by the fourth grade so they can learn. We have not restored all the operating funds schools need or dealt with the inequities in funding across the state. We have not figured out how to help our most economically disadvantaged students achieve. And, unfortunately, some local school leaders have not faithfully implemented policies passed by the legislature, damaging the trust so necessary for success.
The upcoming legislature has the opportunity to build on our progress and prove that the government closest to the people is best and that “every student succeeds” is more than a slogan. After all, our students deserve nothing less than a great education that prepares them for success in school, work and life.
Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.