Duncan offers ‘guiding principles’ for rewriting NCLB

By Dennis Pierce, Editor
February 14th, 2010

“We should be tight on standards … but loose about how to get there,” Duncan said.

“We should be tight on standards … but loose about how to get there,” Duncan said.

Calling No Child Left Behind a “blunt instrument” that placed more emphasis on defining failure than encouraging success, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Feb. 12 outlined the Obama administration’s vision for rewriting the nation’s education law.

Speaking to school superintendents during the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education, Duncan identified three principles that will guide the administration’s approach toward rewriting NCLB: (1) higher standards, (2) rewarding excellence, and (3) a “smarter, tighter federal role” in ensuring that all students succeed.

“I’ll always give credit to NCLB for exposing achievement gaps and advancing standards-based reform. But better than anyone, you know [the law’s] shortcomings,” Duncan told the assembled education leaders. “NCLB allows, even encourages, states to lower their standards. In too many classrooms, it encourages teachers to narrow the curriculum. It relies too much on bubble tests in a couple of subjects. It mislabels schools, even when they are showing progress on important measures.”

He added: “NCLB required you to intervene in schools in a prescribed way, and the accountability system didn’t measure growth. It didn’t differentiate between a school in a little bit of trouble with a handful of students and a school that was in educational meltdown.”

Duncan said he and President Obama believe “we should be tight on standards … but loose about how to get there.”

States should set the bar high when establishing their academic standards, he said, adding that all students should graduate from high school “career or college-ready, without the need for remediation.”

But schools should have more flexibility in how they get all students to achieve, he said, noting: “The federal government needs to help strike the right balance between flexibility and accountability—offering support, not prescriptions.”

For chronically underperforming schools—the bottom 5 percent of all schools—“we are going to ask for rigorous change,” Duncan said. But in most schools, he said, administrators “will have more flexibility than under NCLB to improve educational outcomes.”

And the top-performing schools—which have been largely ignored until now—would receive incentives to “help lead the way to replicating academic excellence,” he said.

In striking a balance between flexibility and accountability, the administration wants to reward excellence “to encourage state and local educators to challenge themselves and hold themselves accountable,” Duncan said. “To compete in the global economy, we are going to have to fund what works, revisit conventional wisdom, and move outside comfort zones.”