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Will NCLB Be Left Behind?

By Alain Jehlen

There’ll be some changes made in the No Child Left Behind law if proposals being put forward by officials of the Department of Education win approval in Congress. There's been no formal announcement and not much in the way of details, but some important elements have been reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post:

No more “adequate yearly progress,” which 30 percent of schools already can’t make.

No more “utopian” (Secretary Arne Duncan’s term) 2014 deadline for every student in America to be “proficient.”

Instead, a new goal: All students must leave high school “college or career ready.” What does that mean? A consortium of states is working on common standards to define it.

All in all, the proposal for a new law is expected to be patterned on the current “Race To The Top,” which is part of the Obama Administration's economic recovery program. One feature of Race To The Top is heavy pressure on states to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores. Most teachers consider that unfair because student scores depend on many factors over which teachers have no control. NEA leaders say tying test scores to teacher evaluation would also be counterproductive because it would punish teachers for taking on the hardest challenges in the most difficult schools, where extraordinary effort is needed just to get average test scores.

Another feature of Race To The Top which federal education leaders reportedly want to use in a revamped NCLB is a competitive grant approach to doling out the billions. Officials have said they want to move away from formula funding—giving out money according to how many students a state serves in various categories, such as low-income. That’s how most of the money has been distributed since the law was first passed as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

The new idea is to get schools to do what Washington thinks is best by making states and districts compete for the limited federal money.

The Bush Administration strategy was mostly to get schools to change by punishing them. President Obama seems inclined to reverse that. Or as Teddy Roosevelt didn’t say, “Speak loudly but carry a big carrot.”

Earlier this month, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) issued a report titled "Education at the Crossroads" proposing a very different vision of the state and federal roles in education.

The federal government, said a bipartisan panel of state legislators, should focus on outcomes, like cutting the drop-out rate, and let states and local districts decide how to get there. Federal officials are “not very good about dealing with student achievement and school reform because they use a cookie-cutter, top-down approach focused on process, not results,” said NCSL staff member David Shreve. He said some of the requirements imposed by federal officials for states applying for Race To The Top Funds have “little to do with student achievement.”

“There’s a better way to support schools than being involved in day-to-day matters,” Shreve said.

In addition to the major substantive changes he will propose for the law, Secretary Duncan has made clear that he also wants a new name. “No Child Left Behind,” which once sounded so good that nobody could be against it, has become a symbol of federal initiatives gone wrong.

NEA has been running a marathon, online brainstorming session to come up with a good new name. Click here to read some of the entries so far and add your own.

That discussion board is part of a broader forum in which educators are talking about how NCLB affects their students and debating a wide range of ideas for changing NCLB.

Martin Richter wrote:
"Part of the genius of American education has been that [it] encourages creativity and innovation.  If we begin to emphasize test-taking and pencil/paper activities, we are likely to develop a nation of people who are good at taking tests, and very little else."

Jane Watson wrote:
"The biggest problem is poverty. Politicians need to realize that parents need to be paid a living wage and that it's not the teacher’s fault if the child is hungry or ill. (In Yakima, the school board gave the retiring superintendent a $300,000 retirement, but has not yet settled with the paraeducators, most of whom bring home less than $1,000 a month.)"

Many of those who commented agree on some important ideas: Stop the test score obsession, one size doesn't fit all, parents and society must share responsibility. But it's a free-wheeling debate with some energetic disagreements.

Join in and speak your mind!

Share Your Stories and Ideas About NCLB

NEA's NCLB forum is a place you can find out how the federal law affects colleagues and their children across the country, and share your ideas about how we can do better. Click here to join the discussion.