Could a new education law ever please everyone?

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.

To qualify for federal funding, states would have to adopt standards for “college and career readiness,” which the bill defines as the ability of a student to take coursework at a public college or university in the state without needing remedial classes. States would have to create new 21st-century assessment systems aligned with these college and career-ready standards.

The bill maintains the option for states to establish alternate academic standards in each of the content areas for up to 1 percent of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, provided they promote inclusion through access to the general curriculum. It also builds on the current law’s “equitable distribution” provisions to ensure that students with the most need have access to talented teachers by requiring that school districts not cluster the lowest performing teachers in the schools with the most low-income and minority students.

Other parts of the bill focus on turning around high schools with graduation rates of 60 percent or below; rewarding successful schools and high-achieving teachers and principals; training and evaluating principals and teachers more effectively; recruiting and training teachers in high-need subjects for high-need schools; increasing flexibility in the use of federal funding streams; and addressing the unique challenges of rural schools, among other issues.

“We’re moving into a partnership mode with the states, rather than the federal government saying, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’” said Harkin.

The bill would preserve the existing law’s requirements that states test students in reading and math every year in grades three through eight, and once in high school, and make the scores public.

Also, states still would face federal oversight for the worst-performing five percent of schools, as well as for the five percent of schools in each state with the widest achievement gap between minority and white students. Districts in charge of those schools could lose federal financing under the new bill if they failed to raise student achievement.

But some critics say giving power to the states is what created the need for NCLB in the first place.

“Harkin’s bill would return control to the state departments of education and the local school districts, and they’re the ones that got us into the mess that No Child was designed to fix,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who headed the Department of Education’s research wing under President Bush, in an interview with the New York Times. “Districts and states have not been effective in delivering quality education to children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so why should we think they’ll be effective this time around?”

Critics also fear the bill could “take [minorities] backwards.”

“It’s a radical reversal of the federal role in education,” Raul Gonzalez, director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights group, told the Washington Post.

According to Gonzalez, 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 and failed to deliver on the promise of educational opportunity for everyone.

Other groups support the bill, saying the update reflects current national issues, supports teachers and staff, and focuses on student graduation.

“For too long, high schools have been overlooked by federal education policy. This proposal would concentrate improvement efforts on high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, often referred to as ‘dropout factories,’” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “It would establish a common, accurate calculation of graduation rates, helping to ensure that the nation’s high schools are held accountable for preparing students for college and careers. It would also support comprehensive efforts by states to strengthen the literacy skills of all students, including young people in high school.”

Wise said the bill supports assessments that would help prepare students for college and the workforce, and it ensures that high schools are supported through Title I, the federal government’s primary source of financial support for low-income students.

“Under current law, high schools only receive 10 percent of Title I funding, though they serve nearly one-quarter of low-income students,” he explained. “Over time, low-income high school students will finally receive the support they deserve from this cornerstone of federal education policy.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was pleased with the bill’s emphasis on teachers, specifically on teacher evaluation.

However, she said the bill’s success will depend on implementation: “When done correctly, evaluations with tools and supports for teachers can lead toward a path of vibrant instructions. When done incorrectly, it becomes just a human resources sorting mechanism that devalues teachers, limits their growth, and undercuts our children’s education. … Valid and reliable teacher development and evaluation systems should be based on multiple measures, not just test scores, and should provide teachers with the feedback, tools, and conditions they need for continuous improvement.”

She added: “This is a lengthy bill that will require much analysis,” echoing other stakeholder groups that urge careful examination of the bill.

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