Obama Calls for Major Change in Education Law


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Education Brief, New York Times
March 13, 2010

By SAM DILLON
The Obama administration on Saturday called for a broad overhaul of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, proposing to reshape divisive provisions that encouraged instructors to teach to tests, narrowed the curriculum, and labeled one in three American schools as failing.

By announcing that he would send his education blueprint to Congress on Monday, President Obama returned to a campaign promise to repair the sprawling federal law, which affects each of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools. His plan strikes a careful balance, retaining some key features of the Bush-era law, including its requirement for annual reading and math tests, while proposing far-reaching changes.

The administration would replace the law’s pass-fail school grading system with one that would measure individual students’ academic growth and judge schools based not on test scores alone but also on indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate. And while the proposal calls for more vigorous interventions in failing schools, it would also reward top performers and lessen federal interference in tens of thousands of reasonably well-run schools in the middle.

In addition, President Obama would replace the law’s requirement that every American child reach proficiency in reading and math, which administration officials have called utopian, with a new national target that could prove equally elusive: that all students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.

“Under these guidelines, schools that achieve excellence or show real progress will be rewarded,” the president said in his weekly radio address, “and local districts will be encouraged to commit to change in schools that are clearly letting their students down.”

Administration officials said their plan would urge the states to achieve the college-ready goal by 2020.

The No Child law, passed in 2001 by bipartisan majorities, focused the nation’s attention on closing achievement gaps between minorities and whites, but it included many provisions that created what Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday called “perverse incentives.”

In an effort to meet the law’s requirements for passing grades, many states began dumbing down standards, and teachers began focusing on test preparation rather than on engaging class work.

“We’ve got to get accountability right this time,” Mr. Duncan told reporters Friday. “For the mass of schools, we want to get rid of prescriptive interventions. We’ll leave it up to them to figure out how to make progress.”

The administration’s turn toward education signaled that the president hoped to get beyond health care and broaden the agenda before the midterm elections make progress on legislative issues more difficult.

Mr. Duncan has been working behind the scenes on rewriting the No Child law with a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers in both chambers, and administration officials say they hope to complete work on a new bill by August, when the elections will dominate the Congressional agenda. Many skeptics question that timetable.

And while leading Congressional Democrats praised the plan, the nation’s two major teachers unions did not. “We are disappointed,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of the proposal, “From everything that we’ve seen, this blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent of the authority.”

Christopher Edley Jr., a former Clinton administration official who is dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on civil rights law, said a briefing document he read had left him concerned about the administration’s direction.

“I worry about retreating from the notion of quality education as a civil right,” Mr. Edley said. “N.C.L.B. had some good sticks in it to compel equity. I’m alarmed by the frequent references to ‘incentives,’ and the apparent intention to reduce the federal role in forcing compliance.”

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House education committee, was also skeptical. “From 30,000 feet, the blueprint seems to set a lot of right goals,” Mr. Kline said. “Yet when we drill down to the details, we are looking at a heavier federal hand than many of us wish to see.”

But Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives, called the proposals a “really positive step forward.” The business community especially liked the proposed new goal of helping all students graduate from high school ready for college and career, Ms. Traiman said.

Administration officials laid out their blueprint in briefings Friday and Saturday with governors, lawmakers, education organizations and journalists. Officials said they intended to leave the drafting of a bill up to Congress.

Mr. Duncan was scheduled to tour Iowa schools on Sunday with Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is the new chairman of the Senate education committee. In a statement, Mr. Harkin called the proposals a “bold vision” that could help “fix the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said, “This blueprint lays the right markers to help us reset the bar for our students and the nation.”

Under the current law, testing focuses on measuring the number of students who are proficient at each grade level. The administration instead wants to measure each student’s academic growth, regardless of the performance level at which they start.

Under the proposals, schools would also be judged on whether they are closing achievement gaps between poor and affluent students. No sanctions exist now for schools that fail in this area. Under the new proposals, states would be required to intervene even in seemingly high-performing schools in affluent districts where test scores and other indicators identify groups of students who are languishing, administration officials said.

The proposals would require states to use annual tests and other indicators to divide the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools into several groups: some 10,000 to 15,000 high-performing schools that could receive rewards or recognition; some 10,000 failing or struggling schools requiring varying degrees of vigorous state intervention; about 5,000 schools that would be required to narrow unacceptably wide achievement gaps; and perhaps 70,000 or so schools in the middle that would be encouraged to figure out on their own how to improve.

The administration’s proposals would also rework the law’s teacher-quality provisions by requiring states to develop evaluation procedures to distinguish effective instructors, partly based on whether their students are learning. These would replace the law’s current emphasis on certifying that all teachers have valid credentials, which has produced little except red tape, officials said.

The current law requires states to adopt “challenging academic standards” to receive federal money for poor students under a section known as Title I. But states are allowed to define “challenging,” and many set standards at mediocre levels. Last month, President Obama proposed requiring states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” to qualify for the $14 billion Title I program. The administration proposes that new federal education dollars be provided to states as competitive grants, rather than through per-pupil formulas.

“This’ll be controversial,” said Bob Wise, a former West Virginia governor who leads the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit group. “They’re trying to change about 40 years of established formula funding and to change an accountability system that a lot of people are wedded to because it’s forced us to come to grips with the achievement gap.”

The law’s focus on reading and math has led thousands of schools to shorten time devoted to other subjects. Hoping schools will once again offer a rich diet of art, history, science, physical education and other courses, the administration says it will allow states to test subjects other than math and reading and use scores on those tests to rate their schools, though it will not require states to do so.

The administration says it has added $100 million to the 2011 budget for programs that encourage schools to offer a broad menu of courses. But how effective these proposals might be against the law’s tendency to narrow the curriculum remained unclear.

The blueprint proposes eliminating a current requirement, popular among Republicans, that schools failing to meet testing benchmarks for two years in a row provide busing to other schools for students wishing to transfer, but few parents have transferred their students under this provision.

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