Congress should reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) this year, declares a high-profile report released Feb. 13 by the Aspen Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Declares the report, titled “NCLB and Beyond”: The rejuvenated law should establish national standards for student achievement, broaden the definition of highly qualified teachers, and authorize $400 million over four years to help states develop data systems to track student achievement and teacher qualifications.

The bipartisan commission–co-chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who served 14 years as the Republican governor of Wisconsin, and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat–set out to look at how the NCLB law has succeeded and failed. In its final analysis, the commission released 75 recommendations it says could be part of the re-authorization of the bill, which is due to come up later this year.

Explained Barnes in releasing the report, “The recommendations create a blueprint–really, we think a jump-start–for Congress that we hope [lawmakers] will use to chart the course of the next re-authorizing of this law … We can and should re-authorize No Child Left Behind this year. The commission stands ready to help and assist in any way the Congress desires.”

The White House and U.S. Department of Education (ED) want NCLB renewed this year, but many Washington observers say the reauthorization is likely to be delayed until 2008 or later.

U.S. ED Secretary Margaret Spellings welcomed the Aspen Institute report, but its recommendations were in a withering cross-fire from both the left and the right even before its official release.

Summed the National Education Association: “NEA opposes the commission on No Child Left Behind’s proposed ‘highly qualified effective teacher’ (HQET) mandate as an ill-conceived proposal that sets teachers up for failure.”

Said American Federation of Teachers President Edward J. McElroy : “The ‘Highly Qualified and Effective Teachers’ recommendation in the commission’s report should be a nonstarter for the congressional committees dealing with reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.”

Conservative education commentator Chester E. Finn Jr., writing with Michael J. Petrilli, in a response published by the National Review Online, had this to say: “If conservatives thought Bush’s original law was a dubious venture, heavy as it is on big-government mandates and light on school choice, this version would be markedly worse. It’s the antithesis of what you might expect from former Wisconsin governor and commission co-chair Tommy Thompson, one of America’s foremost proponents of school choice (and of state flexibility in welfare reform), who must have been consumed by his nascent presidential campaign and left the drafting to staff.

“The future the commission depicts gives Washington yet more power over the nation’s schools; its summary recommendations use the word ‘require’ (often followed by the word ‘states’) at least 35 times. By contrast, we found just half a dozen ‘allows’ or ‘permits.’ Seems the panel is six times more interested in issuing new federal mandates than providing flexibility to states, districts or schools.”

Said the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “The commission’s recommendations for reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind, amount to little more than NCLB on steroids… While the commission claims that the public now accepts NCLB, numerous state and national surveys find that educators overwhelmingly reject the test-and- punish dictates of the law while parents reject the side effects of teaching to the test. The more the public knows about the law, the more they oppose it.”

The commission was put together to identify the successes of NCLB as well as the problems it faced, according to the Aspen Institute. The work of the commission reportedly has included 12 public hearings and roundtables around the nation and more than 10,000 eMail messages, submissions of written testimony, meetings, and letters from those with thoughts on how to improve NCLB.

The 75 recommendations are grouped into five categories, which the commission labels this way:

•Ensuring teachers and principals are effective at improving student achievement

•Accelerating progress through accurate and fair accountability measures

•Effective school improvement and quality student options

•Improved standards tied to college and workplace readiness

•Strengthening and reforming high schools

“I am encouraged that the commission addressed embedded growth models in the law to measure student achievement over time, the pressing need for highly qualified teachers in every classroom, and more significant interventions and critical resources for schools that are chronically underperforming,” said Secretary Spellings in a statement. “The commission’s recommendations recognize the solid foundation built by NCLB and reaffirm the law’s core principles including accountability, high standards, and having all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014.”

One of the major recommendations was putting more of an emphasis on what makes a highly qualified teacher. In their news conference, Thompson and Barnes said that determining who was qualified based simply on passing certain requirements was not an effective way to show how good a teacher really is. “The difference that an effective and high-quality teacher can make for all children is well documented in study after study,” said Barnes. “The commission heard from school officials and state leaders [who said that] NCLB highly qualified teacher requirements simply weren’t leveraging real quality in our classrooms. They were more about compliance than ensuring our teachers have skills.”

Instead of looking at requirements to determine whether or not a teacher is qualified, the commission said teachers should have the opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom. By changing the definition to Highly Qualified Effective Teachers, teachers would be deemed effective through systems that measured three years of student achievement data, as well as principal or teacher peer evaluations. Teachers in the top 75 percent of producing learning gains in the state would be considered highly qualified and effective.

The commission also expressed support for an optional national standard model that would have an effect on the testing occurring in each state. Currently, each state has its own individual standards. The commission pointed out that states have varying criteria for determining what makes their students proficient and said this leads to inconsistent judgments about student achievement.

The report urges development of nationally established model content and performance standards using the framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Once the tests and standards were created, states would have the opportunity to either fully implement them, build their own assessment and standards based on the national model standards, or disregard them and continue using their own standards and tests. If the states chose to build their own or continue using their current standards, their proficiency scores would be analyzed and compared to the national model.

Along with development of national standards, the NCLB panel calls on the federal government to spend $100 million per year for the next four years to provide states with the money to upgrade their student- and teacher-data systems.

The states would use the money to create data warehouses and digital analytics to track every student’s academic progress from year to year. With such capabilities, all states could use student growth to determine whether schools and districts were making adequate yearly progress (AYP), as required by the current NCLB. Currently, institutional evaluations are made by comparing student scores by grade level, not by weighing individual student progress.

The state data systems also would be used to determine teacher effectiveness, according to the Aspen report. The commission, in a separate report, said principals should evaluate teachers using the computerized student test data. Under the plan, a teacher judged ineffective for seven consecutive years would not be able to work in a school receiving Title I funding, which provides nearly $13 billion a year for compensatory education for disadvantaged students.

The Aspen panel also called for science to become a required part of the No Child Left Behind re-authorization. “Strong performance in science is extremely important for a student’s future success as well as maintaining our country’s competitiveness in a global economy,” said Thompson. “We are recommending states count results from science assessments for accountability purposes and [that] a NCLB re-authorization law should include science along with math and reading with 100 percent proficiency by 2014.”

“While the goals of NCLB are sound, our work has shown that the states and the status in the states is not perfect,” said Barnes. “This current discussion must keep what is working and make the changes necessary. In that, I hope that Congress and this administration will keep in mind what is best for a child, rather than what is satisfactory for adults in this system.”

Links:

Aspen Institute NCLB web site
http://www.aspeninstitute.org/site/c.huLWJeMRKpH/b.938015/k.40DA/Commission_on_No_Child_Left_Behind.htm

PDF of “Beyond NCLB” report (2.45 MB)
http://www.aspeninstitute.org/atf/cf/{DEB6F227-659B-4EC8-8F84-8DF23CA704F5}/NCLB_Book.pdf

Statement from the National Education Association
http://www.nea.org/lac/esea/hqetposition.html

Statement from the American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org/presscenter/releases/2007/021307.htm

National Center for Fair and Open Testing
http://www.fairtest.org/index.htm

“Fool Me Twice” article National Review Online
http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ODRhNGQ0NzJkNjc3OGQyOWViZGJjZmI0NzY4ZDhjMzk=