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Reform of 'No Child Left Behind' Calls for More Flexibility, Higher Standards

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It's been something of a parlor game among educators and Washington think-tank types to speculate on what the long-overdue reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act would -- and should -- eventually look like. (Perhaps knowing that's what passes for cocktail-party chitchat is the reason that President Obama's outline for education reform was released on Saturday night.) On Monday, Obama delivered his much-anticipated wish list for revamping NCLB to Congress, to largely positive reviews.

"A Blueprint for Reform,"
as Obama's outline is called, makes clear that one of the first things to be jettisoned is the name No Child Left Behind (in the same way that New York City real estate developers once tried to change the name of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to Clinton, to distance itself from unsavory associations).

But the changes Obama envisions for the nation's 10,000 schools go beyond cosmetics.

For more than a year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has told any group he's spoken in front of that the current education law (one of George W. Bush's signature pieces of legislation) is backwards -- that rather than being "tight on goals and loose on how you get there," it's the opposite. The "Blueprint" seeks to rectify that. As George Wood, a high school principal in Stewart, Ohio, and the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, says, "There's a lot of [good] language about teaching, a lot of language about flexibility, a lot of language about districts being able to choose strategies that will work" for them.

For example, rather than just testing kids in English and math, the new outline allows schools to test in other subjects, recognizing the value that history, science, civics and other subjects bring to the student (and, expressing my own view here, perhaps in recognition of the richness that a well-rounded student brings to society).

In addition, the proposal shifts the focus from singling out under-performing schools to fostering a "race to the top" to reward successful reforms. It supports the expansion of public charter schools and calls for flexibility in how school districts spend federal dollars "as long as they are continuing to focus on what matters most -- improving outcomes for students." It also allows them to use federal grant funds "to provide differentiated compensation and career advancement opportunities to educators who are effective in increasing student academic achievement."

There is also much in the plan aimed at closing many of the achievement gaps that plague our schools. One example is that states and districts eventually would have to equalize resources (including top teachers), leveling disparities between high- and low-poverty schools.

Along with greater flexibility, the administration is setting a higher bar. The president has called for all students to be college- or career-ready by 2020 (as opposed to the current law, which mandates that students be proficient in math and English by 2014). The change is a recognition that with a higher dropout rate than those of most industrialized nations and a cripplingly high percentage of college freshmen enrolled in remedial coursework, there's an urgent need for high schools to prepare students for whatever comes next -- and ultimately for success.

And whereas another criticism of NCLB has been that some states compensate for sub-par student performance with low standards and easy tests, the new outline emphasizes stringent standards, ideally achieved by adopting the new national "core" standards released last week by the National Governors Association and chief state school officers -- or a tough-minded equivalent.

Mike Petrilli, who worked in the Bush administration and is now at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, writes that the proposals represent "a dramatic change in the federal role in education -- one that would be more targeted, less prescriptive, and use a lighter touch on the vast majority of America's schools."

Not everyone is happy, however. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said that the proposal "places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent of the authority."

Dennis Van Roekel, head of the National Education Association (the nation's largest teachers union), complained in a statement that "the 'blueprint' requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario." This would result, he said, in a "top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration."

As the Forum for Education and Democracy's Wood points out, "Rhetoric always sounds good. It's the difference between campaigning and governing. This is a campaign document."

In other words, while this is a strong framework for the debate in the months to come, it's only that. Exactly how No Child Left Behind will be reformed -- and even the name the new law is given -- will be hashed out in the months to come in Congress.
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i am against no child left behind because it takes away gifted children

January 22 2011 at 8:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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