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Could a new education law ever please everyone?

Critics say a new bipartisan bill gives too much power to states; proponents say it supports teachers, 21st-century assessments

Critics of the bill say states were free for decades to set their own goals, but they failed to narrow achievement gaps between students of different races and income groups.

The first comprehensive, bipartisan attempt to overhaul the federal No Child Left Behind Act would change the law’s accountability system dramatically, focus attention on so-called dropout factories, and support teachers. Yet, already some advocacy groups have voiced concerns—which begs the question: Could an NCLB rewrite ever please everyone?

The bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

The 865-page bill (read a summary here) has angered some advocacy groups who are upset about its new accountability system. The bill would scrap Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), instead giving states the authority to make sure students are making “continuous improvement.”

There would be no specific goals for students to reach—a seeming plus for states that have been complaining about the current law’s performance demands, such as the goal that 100 percent of students show proficiency in reading and math by 2014 if schools wish to avoid serious consequences.

Many educators say the current law’s use of AYP has created a focus on testing rather than on learning or 21st-century skill development.

In a conference call with reporters, Harkin said he would have liked to include specific accountability goals in the bill, but he compromised during his year of negotiations with Enzi.

Instead, the bill focuses on implementing the Common Core State Standards, a state-led effort to set nationwide standards for K-12 education.

Harkin said the bill “focuses on teaching and learning, not testing and sanctioning.”

The bill would give states the flexibility to design their own accountability systems, and states would be able to use growth models to recognize and reward schools whose students are making academic progress. Each state’s accountability system must identify chronically struggling schools that are in need of support or dramatic intervention, and states would have to continue to focus on closing achievement gaps. The bill maintains the current law’s reporting and disaggregation requirements that shed light on how all students are performing, regardless of their backgrounds or socio-economic status.

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