How to Boost Academic Achievement for All

Testimony Education

How to Boost Academic Achievement for All

June 20, 1999 6 min read
Nina Rees
Senior Research Fellow

Testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee United States Senate

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:

My name is Nina Shokraii Rees. The opinions I will be expressing in this testimony are mine and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

It is an honor to appear before your committee today to present an idea that I hope will capture your attention and offer our nation a chance to view the federal investment in our nation's schools in a completely new light. It's an idea that, for the first time, shifts the focus of federal education policy from inputs to outcomes, zeroes in on closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, and rewards success while punishing failure. Offered by your colleague Senator Slade Gorton and House Education Committee Chairman Bill Goodling, it is called the Straight A's Act -- Academic Achievement for All. And in many ways, it has all the elements needed to improve the use of federal education funds, which is the topic of this hearing.

First, the problem: Our nation's schools are not performing well. After 34 years and $120 billion spent on Title I -- aid to disadvantaged students and the cornerstone of the federal investment in K-12 -- only 13 percent of low-income 4th graders score at or above the "proficient" level on national reading tests, compared with 40 percent of the upper-income students. Even worse, no progress has been made in achieving the program's fundamental goal: narrowing the achievement gap between low-income and upper-income students.

Despite spending $358 million per year to train teachers in math and science, America ranks 19th out of 21 industrialized countries in 12th grade mathematics achievement and last in 12th grade advanced physics. Similarly, the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program has spent $6 billion since its inception; but according to General Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration's "drug czar," it simply "mails out checks."

More fundamentally, the federal role in education has been at best irrelevant in some states, and a serious barrier to reform in states that are far ahead of the curve in implementing serious reforms. The federal role is NOT the cause of all education problems, but in many instances it falls short of delivering the goods or runs counter to state efforts. For example, in Florida, six times as many people are required to administer a federal dollar as a state dollar. Yet not a single federal penny can be used by the state to complement state dollars used to offer students trapped in failing schools an option out of the system. And while Pennsylvania is implementing an innovative plan to boost teacher quality, federal dollars bypass the state, funding programs that have yet to show a correlation with student outcomes.

Though there are a number of proposals offered by the Administration and your colleagues to address these issues, they are all based on the same faulty one-size-fits-all premises that risk not meeting the different needs of states.

To be sure, Congress has never stopped to reassess its own role and its own effectiveness in the area of education since it enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. Mr. Chairman, it is time to reassess this program as a whole and see if there is another way to proceed, a Third Way if you will.

The Solution. The Straight A's Act offers such an option. It leaves the basic construct of federal education programs intact - hopefully, your committee will improve some of the components -- but offer some states an opportunity to experiment.

Straight A's is the first federal education program ever to shift federal dollars from feeding one-size-fits-all programs and managing the flow of funds to a program that demands academic outcomes, especially for disadvantaged and Limited English Proficient students.

It demands accountability from states that receive federal education dollars, not the way an accountant views accountability, but the way a parent would. The bottom line for parents and Straight A's is setting aside all excuses and demanding that federal dollars be used to boost the grades of students, regardless of socioeconomic background.

How does it work? I have attached a paper for the record that I put together at Heritage a while ago outlining the mechanics of the plan. Straight A's would allow states or school districts to spend their share of federal dollars on the reforms of their choice in exchange for agreed-upon academic results. So, for instance, if Florida decides to participate in Straight A's, it would select the formula-based K-12 programs it wishes to commingle. It would outline in a contract or charter agreement how it plans to spend the money and by how much it hopes to increase test results and decrease the achievement gap between its rich and poor students.

Next, the state would send the Secretary of Education baseline data on the present academic condition of its students disaggregated by socioeconomic background. The federal government would then send Florida one check and agree that in exchange it needs to produce the results it promises to achieve in the contract. If Florida achieves these results, the federal government would provide a bonus. If it fails, its flexibility would be yanked. Under egregious circumstances, states or locals should also suffer from monetary sanctions, though the current Straight A's plan only cuts back administrative overhead.

Straight A's may seem like a radical departure from the way things are run today, but in many ways it resembles some of the reforms with which this Congress is well familiar. For instance:

  • Before President Clinton ended welfare "as we know it," Congress gave some states waivers to try things differently. This approach worked, as it encouraged experimentation and allowed each state to come up with its own unique solutions. It should also work with education.

  • Today, 35 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. These laws allow school principals considerable fiscal and legal autonomy in exchange for agreed-upon academic results. If a charter school fails to adhere to the terms of its charter, it will have to shut down. If it succeeds, it remains in business and likely will attract more students and funding. Straight A's imposes the same principle on states. A Straight A state can be considered a giant charter school.

Just so we are clear,

  • Straight A's will NOT end the federal role or investment in education or eliminate a single federal program.

  • States will not be required to participate in Straight A's; only those that choose will take part.

  • Straight A's invites an experimental and pluralistic approach to the next five years of ESEA rather than a doctrinaire, uniform, "Washington knows best, we've got the answer" approach.

  • And more importantly, Straight A's will NOT leave the poor behind. To the contrary, Straight A's is the first and only piece of legislation that demands states "improve" the academic achievement of their poor students instead of simply serving their needs, and demands that states close the academic achievement gap between their rich and poor students.

Straight A's is the FIRST bill to focus the attention of federal policy on academic achievement.

Straight A's is the FIRST bill to reward success and punish failure.

Straight A's is the FIRST bill to allow states and communities freedom to innovate.


Reform-minded Democrat Superintendents like Bill Olshefski of Seattle and Paul Vallas of Chicago have endorsed the Straight A's Act. Governors like Michigan's John Engler and Virginia's James Gilmore, whose states are already leading the nation in imposing tough standards and accountability systems, have also endorsed Straight A's. Even the recent draft statement on education prepared by the National Governors' Association declares that "states should be given the option to negotiate a performance partnership with the US Secretary of Education that would allow states to consolidate one or more federal programs and federal funds into a single performance plan in exchange for being held to higher levels of accountability for improving student performance."

Clearly, Straight A's is an idea whose time has come. If your committee is serious about boosting the return on the dollars invested in education, it would enact Senator Gorton's Straight A's Act. Otherwise, the next 34 years may not look much different from the past 34.


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Nina Rees

Senior Research Fellow