President Barack Obama on March 13 unveiled a plan to overhaul the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law championed by President George W. Bush. The plan aims to replace a system that in the last decade has tagged more than a third of schools as failing and created a hodgepodge of sometimes weak academic standards among states.
“Unless we take action—unless we step up—there are countless children who will never realize their full talent and potential,” Obama said during a video address. “I don’t accept that future for them. And I don’t accept that future for the United States of America.”
In the proposed dismantling of NCLB, education officials would move away from punishing schools that don’t meet benchmarks and focus on rewarding schools for progress, particularly with poor and minority students. Obama intends to send a rewrite of the law to Congress on March 15.
The proposed changes call for states to adopt standards that ensure students are ready for college or a career rather than grade-level proficiency—the focus of the current law.
The blueprint also would allow states to use subjects other than reading and mathematics as part of their measurements for meeting federal goals, a move that could please some NCLB critics who have said the current law encourages schools not to focus on history, art, science, social studies, and other important subjects.
And, for the first time in 45 years, the White House is proposing a $4 billion increase in federal education spending, most of which would go to increase the competition among states for grant money and move away from formula-based funding.
The blueprint goes before the House Education and Labor Committee on March 17 as Obama pushes Congress to reauthorize the education law this year, a time-consuming task that some observers say will be difficult.
Committee Chairman George Miller, a Democrat from California, praised Obama’s plan.
“This blueprint lays the right markers to help us reset the bar for our students and the nation,” Miller said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 1.4 million educators nationwide, issued a statement March 13 criticizing the plan, saying “it just doesn’t make sense to have teachers—and teachers alone—bear the responsibility for school and student success.”
“It appears from our first review that despite some promising rhetoric, this blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent authority,” the statement said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan briefed a handful of governors, lawmakers, and education groups on the plan March 12, including Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican.
“The governor is very supportive of the direction the secretary is going,” said Perdue’s spokesman, Chris Schrimpf.
Highlights from the blueprint include:
• By 2020, all students graduating from high school would need to be ready for college or a career. That’s a shift away from the current law, which calls for all students to be performing at grade level in reading and math by 2014.
• The Education Department (ED) would support the development of better state assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills and not just multiple-choice responses. States would get formula-based grants to redesign their assessments in reading and math to make sure they align with college and career-ready standards. ED also would offer grants to help states develop tests in other subjects, such as science and social studies—though these grants would be awarded on a competitive basis instead of by formula.
• A focus on effective teachers and principals would call on states and districts to develop systems for evaluating and supporting these individuals, based on student growth and other factors. The plan also calls for a new program that would support efforts to recruit, place, reward, retain, and promote effective teachers and principals and enhance the teaching profession.
• The plan would give more rewards—money and flexibility—to high-poverty schools that are seeing big gains in student achievement and use them as a model for other schools in low-income neighborhoods that struggle with performance.
• It would punish the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools using aggressive measures, such as having the state take over federal funding for poor students, replacing the principal and half the teaching staff, or closing the school altogether. This school turnaround program already has generated controversy.
• Duncan has said the name No Child Left Behind will be dropped, because it is associated with a harsh law that punishes schools for not reaching benchmarks even if they’ve made big gains. He said the administration will work with Congress to come up with a new name.
Amy Wilkins, a vice president with The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., called the blueprint a “culture shift.”
“One of the things America has not been clear about is what K-12 is supposed to do,” Wilkins said. “In this, we’re saying K-12 is supposed to prepare kids for college and meaningful careers.”
The nation’s first federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. The law has been reauthorized several times since, most recently in 2001 under President George W. Bush.
It was criticized by educators for focusing too much on testing and not enough on learning. Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he is glad to see NCLB go away.
“We’re delighted over that,” he said. “We have not been a fan of No Child Left Behind.”
The Education Trust
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