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CEP Blog Posts

Blog Posts from the Center on Education Policy

As policymakers consider a reauthorized ESEA, let’s try using what we know about federal policies for school improvement.

Author(s): Jennifer McMurrer, Diane Stark Rentner, and Nancy Kober
Published: April 14, 2015


What, if anything, can the federal government do to improve persistently low-performing schools and ensure that all students attend effective schools? Congressional efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reveal deep differences on this central question. Many Congressional Republicans say the answer is to substantially reduce the federal role and increase state and local control of education, a philosophy embodied in the Student Success Act reported by the House education committee. Key Congressional Democrats disagree, as do civil rights organizations, the Secretary of Education, and some business leaders; these groups emphasize the importance of maintaining federal protections and tracking achievement for disadvantaged students and providing targeted funding to high-poverty schools. Senate education committee leaders have introduced a bipartisan bill that would retain some federal requirements but give states more latitude in how they hold schools accountable. The bill would also pass responsibility to states and school districts to determine how to improve low-performing schools.

To inform this debate, policymakers of diverse viewpoints can look to a body of research conducted over the past 13 years by the Center on Education Policy. Since 2002, CEP has studied implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, particularly federal policies to improve low-performing schools and raise student achievement. This research includes state and local surveys, case studies, and analyses of test score trends. Summarized below are the main lessons learned from this body of work about the federal role in school improvement. These are by no means the only lessons from this research; all of the study reports on NCLB and school improvement are available for free at

  1. Allow some flexibility in the use of school improvement funds. School improvement is often a complex, iterative, and evolving process in which school and community context influences choices and implementation. Until very recently, the Obama Administration’s rules for federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs) required recipients to use funds to implement one of four specific reform models. But the one-size fits all approach did not work for many grantees participating in CEP’s research, especially schools in rural areas. It will be important to build some flexibility into any federal role in assisting states and districts with improving schools.
  1. Recognize that even with a more flexible approach, some structure can be helpful in planning and implementing reforms. The federal school reform models, though flawed, did provide a process and a structure that encouraged many low-performing schools to analyze data, consider how they were doing things, and determine how they might improve. For example, by virtue of having to respond to federal requirements to expand learning time, schools often ended up making better use of instructional time in the school day and finding more time for teacher development, planning, and collaboration.
  1. Provide dedicated funding for school and district reform. Federal SIGs were often a welcome source of extra funding because they allowed district and school leaders to try new approaches for improving student learning. Typically, other funding streams received by district and schools were not realistic sources of support for school reform because they were already obligated for salaries and other expenses.
  1. Target a portion of federal dollars on improving the capacity of states and districts to help low-achieving schools. Often state education agencies lack sufficient staff to provide technical assistance on school improvement, while districts lack staff to fashion reform plans and to identify academic, curricular, staffing, or other issues that affect school performance. Although money for improvement is needed at the school level, it’s just as important that federal funds are available to build state and local staffing capacity and expertise to help struggling schools.
  1. Recognize that real change may take longer than a three- or five-year grant cycle. There is a tendency among policymakers to declare a program or a policy a failure if it does not show immediate positive results. It takes time, however, to bring about systemic change and increase student achievement in schools that educate large proportions of low-income and disadvantaged students. For example, many schools that received federal SIGs funds focused the first year or more of their grant on improving school safety, attendance, parent involvement, and other aspects of school climate, which they viewed as a necessary precondition to improving achievement.
  1. Sustain funding for improvement activities. SIGs are provided for a limited number of years on the theory that local or state funds will gradually replace the federal dollars to sustain activities. CEP’s research shows, however, that more often than not when the federal money goes away, so does the reform effort, no matter how promising.
  1. Study and report on school improvement efforts. Although the U.S. Department of Education has released some data on the impact of SIGs, there is much more to be learned about the state, district, and school roles in planning and implementing school improvement. For example, which approaches worked and did not work for states and schools to improve student achievement? And what were the conditions that contributed to the successes and obstacles of these approaches? What is needed is a sustained, multi-tiered federal approach to study school improvement efforts that are underway; this should include funds for localized, timely, and actionable research as well as larger federal data collection and analysis across multiple sites.

CEP’s research points to the need for a balanced federal role in school improvement that reduces some requirements but still provides a degree of structure; that provides dedicated funding for schools, districts, and states to carry out their respective responsibilities; and that allows for sustained support over a sufficient period of time.

Thoughtful policymaking requires attention to lessons from the past, continued attention to emerging information in the present, and a candid discussion of how the past and present can inform the future. We hope that the House and Senate education committee members will take into consideration the valuable research done by CEP and other groups when crafting an ESEA policy on the federal role in improving low-performing schools.

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Hello and welcome to the Center on Education Policy (CEP).

Author(s): Maria Ferguson
Published: July 20, 2012

Hello and welcome to the Center on Education Policy (CEP).

My name is Maria Ferguson and I am the new Executive Director of CEP, which is now an independent center housed at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD). For those of you who have come to our website before, you likely know that the founder and former president and chief operating officer Jack Jennings, recently retired after serving as an exemplar of thoughtful, intelligent leadership for 17 years. Jack is a legend to all of us in education policy and following in his footsteps is both humbling and thrilling.

CEP’s staff has managed the transition to their new home beautifully. I am thrilled to be part of such an amazing organization and will work hard to chart a new path with a clear sense of purpose and impact, with a bright eye towards the future.  To that end, many people have asked me what CEP’s move to GWU means for the organization.  Although this relationship is new for both CEP and GWU, I can tell you this much:

CEP will continue to be an independent source of information and resources to support and improve public education in the U.S.  CEP does not represent any special interests and will remain a completely independent source of information about education policy and practice amid the conflicting opinions and perceptions about public education. 

CEP will continue to act as a voice for public education by reporting on the impact of federal and state education policies. We will continue to convene people with differing points of view and foster a reasoned debate on public education. And we will look for opportunities to grow and develop new areas of work that are consistent with our mission and take advantage of the many resources at GWU. An important goal of CEP is to help citizens better understand the role of public education in a democracy. In order to do this, citizens must understand the laws and policies that structure education at the local, state and federal levels, and how these laws and policies affect teaching and learning.  All of us will continue to work hard to honor CEP’s legacy of being an honest and trusted broker of information about education policy. 

You should continue to expect the same caliber of excellent information and resources from CEP that so many people have come to expect and appreciate.  As a longtime end user of CEP’s research and information, I know the value this organization has for education leaders, policymakers and the public. Thankfully CEP’s staff remains intact: Deputy Director Diane Stark Rentner, Research Associate Shelby McIntosh; Senior Research Associate Jennifer McMurrer; Office Manager Susie Pamudji; and longtime CEP consultants Naomi Chudowsky, Nancy Kober, and Caitlin Scott remain key members of the CEP team.  CEP’s Alexandra Usher will begin a Master’s program in public policy at the University of Chicago this fall. 

CEP is incredibly fortunate to now be part of the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Led by Dean Michael Feuer, the staff and faculty at GSEHD have made CEP’s transition smooth and easy. We are all excited about the people and resources that GSEHD brings to CEP’s world. The faculty and students at the University represent an incredible pool of talent and knowledge that we are lucky enough to now have as colleagues. We look forward to mutually supporting one another’s efforts so we can all engage more fully in analysis of education policy issues. 

I hope you will visit  again and often. I encourage you to take advantage of the many resources on this website. You can find out more information about CEP and its new home at GWU by following the links below. Do not hesitate to email me directly with any questions or concerns:


Maria Ferguson bio
Michael Feuer bio
GSEHD website

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A Civil Right to a Good Education

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: January 30, 2012

This January 30, 2012 Huffington Post blog by CEP President Jack Jennings reviews past national movements to improve schools and proposes a new effort where a good education would become a civil right for all.  The blog summarizes Jennings’ January 2012 paper Reflections on a Half-Century of School Reform: Why Have We Fallen Short and Where Do We Go From Here?

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Coal for Christmas

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: January 10, 2012

Before Christmas, Jack Jennings, CEP’s president, submitted the following blog to the Huffington Post. This blog discusses the disappointing results from urban school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress that were released in December. He suggests a link between those results and the financial problems being experienced by American schools.

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Have We Gotten It Wrong on School Reform?

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: November 23, 2011

This November 23, 2011 Huffington Post blog written by CEP’s president Jack Jennings highlights a recent study of the education systems in Shanghai (China), Finland, Japan, Singapore, and Ontario (Canada), and discusses what lessons can be learned from these countries to help improve public education in the United States.

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Higher Wages Would Attract, Keep Better Teachers

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: November 9, 2011

On November 9, 2011, a commentary written by Jack Jennings, CEP’s president, appeared in the Debate Club of U.S. News and World Report. That magazine had asked him to comment on a recent report concluding that American teachers were over-paid. The commentary rebuts that conclusion.

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A Serious Step Backward

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: October 24, 2011

On October 24, the Huffington Post carried a blog written by Jack Jennings, CEP’s president and CEO, on the views of the Republican presidential aspirants on the role of the federal government in education.

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Blog Post (PDF format, 73.3 KB) * Direct link:

A Ray of Sunlight in Education

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: September 14, 2011

This September 14, 2011 Huffington Post blog, written by Jack Jennings, discusses the Center on Education Policy Report, Common Core State Standards:  Progress and Challenges in School Districts’ Implementation.

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Teacher Pay: U.S. Ranks 22nd Out Of 27 Countries

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: August 30, 2011

This August 30, 2011 Huffington Post blog by Jack Jennings discusses how teacher pay in the United States compares to other countries.

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School Vouchers: No Clear Advantage in Academic Achievement

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: July 27, 2011

In this Huffington Post blog, posted on July 27, 2011, Jack Jennings reviews the evolution of pro-voucher arguments over last 50 years, discusses these findings in light of CEP’s recent report on vouchers, and calls for greater efforts to improve public schools, which is where 90% of students attend school today.

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Education Budget Cuts Imperil Reform

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: June 30, 2011

In this Huffington Post blog, posted on June 30, 2011, Jack Jennings discusses the findings from the CEP report, Strained Schools Face Bleak Future: Districts Foresee Budget Cuts, Teacher Layoffs, and a Slowing of Education Reform Efforts.  He warns that squeezed school budgets may lead to a decline in student achievement because school districts are laying off teachers in order to balance the budget.  Fewer teachers will likely lead to increased class sizes and less attention to individual students.

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Long-Term Gains In Minority Education: An Overlooked Success?

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: May 8, 2011

This blog, which was written by Jack Jennings, CEP’s president, and posted on the Huffington Post on May 8, 2011, discusses achievement gains of white, Latino, and African American students on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The blog points out that while general trends show a mixed picture of achievement gains over the last four decades, Latino and African American students made great gains.  Accompanying the blog is a table that shows the changes in long-term NAEP reading and math scores since the 1970s for white, Latino, and African American students as well as for all students.

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Federal Aid to the Schools - Wasteful or Helpful?

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: April 21, 2011

This blog posted on April 21, 2011, in the Huffington Post, by Jack Jennings counters the criticisms of conservative critics of federal aid to education by describing the equity purpose of this aid and then highlighting the major educational achievements of the groups principally targeted for this assistance.

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Those Who Don't Learn From Their History ...

Author(s): Alexandra Usher
Published: April 20, 2011

In this guest blog posted April 20 on Education Week’s Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook, Alexandra Usher discusses the early federal land grant program which encouraged the creation of public schools across the U.S. Referencing CEP’s 2011 background paper Public Schools and the Original Federal Land Grants, Usher describes how the Land Ordinance and Northwest Ordinance established a policy through which new states were given land by the federal government for the support of public schools.

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Turning Around the Lowest Performing Schools: A Noble Goal and a Daunting Challenge

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: April 7, 2011

In this blog posted on April 7, 2011 in the Huffington Post, Jack Jennings describes the intent and weighs the prospects for success of President Obama’s initiative to make improvements in the nation’s lowest performing schools. The blog draws on the research conducted by CEP on schools needing restructuring under NCLB in assessing the chances for major improvement in these lowest performing schools.

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Can Boys Succeed in Later Life If They Can’t Read As Well As Girls?

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: March 17, 2011

In his March, 2011 blog post for The Huffington Post, CEP president and CEO Jack Jennings asks the question, “Can Boys Succeed Later in Life if They Can’t Read as Well as Girls?” Jennings notes troubling statistics that illustrate lower performance of boys compared to girls, including performance on state reading tests, and graduation rates from both high school and college. He says that the good news is that the recent national focus on improvement in math achievement for women has paid off, but that the bad news is that men are falling behind in the workforce, most likely because of their educational deficiencies.

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Get the Federal Government Out of Education? That Wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ Vision

Author(s): Jack Jennings
Published: February 7, 2011

This article, written by Jack Jennings, CEP's president and appearing in the February 7, 2011 Huffington Post, discusses the history of the federal role in education, and gives reasons why the federal government should continue to be involved in education.

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