Friday, March 16, 2007

NCLB And The New EduReality

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act up for renewal this year, Democratic control of Congress has changed what was once a given into a somewhat likely:
President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law is headed for fundamental changes as Congress rewrites it this year, including a likely softening of do-or-die deadlines.

School administrators long have complained about the annual deadlines, which punish schools that do not make adequate progress toward having all children perform at their grade levels.

School officials also have rebelled at requirements that students with limited English ability or with learning disabilities perform as well as their grade-level peers.

Now, those complaints are being taken up by lawmakers spanning the political spectrum.

Key Democrats who control the federal purse strings are demanding changes. Moderate Republicans say the law must be more flexible. On Thursday, they were joined by dozens of GOP conservatives who want an even more radical overhaul.

Lawmakers say a major flaw is that schools that miss achievement targets by a little are treated the same way as schools that miss those goals by a lot. Schools then are labeled as needing improvement and face the same penalties.

"We can't have one-size-fits-all," Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, said Thursday. He led a group of House and Senate lawmakers in introducing legislation that would let states opt out of No Child Left Behind requirements without losing federal education money.

Currently, any state that does not adhere to the requirements of the $23 billion program cannot get the federal dollars that come with it. The requirements include annual testing in math and reading in grades three through eight, and once in high school. The tests must show steady yearly progress toward a goal of getting students working on grade level by the year 2014.

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri is supporting the conservatives' bill, even though he voted for the law in 2001.

"The overriding intrusion in No Child Left Behind is too large to deal with unless you fundamentally change the legislation," Blunt said.

A former education secretary, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said, "That's a visceral reaction to too much federal involvement in local schools."

Alexander is not backing Hoekstra and Blunt in their effort but said their concerns must be taken into account when the law is rewritten.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has testified on Capitol Hill this week, hearing from Republicans and Democrats who want changes.

Rep. James Walsh, a senior member of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, wants the law loosened for schools that are failing due to the performance of immigrant students who do not speak English fluently.

The government exempts students who are just learning English for less than a year from taking reading tests. After that time, those students have to be tested and schools are held accountable for their scores.

"We've gotta find a better way to test the progress of these kids," said Walsh, R-New York, who expressed the popular view that a year is not long enough.

When groups of children, such as those learning English or special education students, fail to meet the law's achievement goals, entire schools can be labeled as failing and could face consequences such as having to fire their staffs -- which lawmakers say is unfair.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, also on the committee that oversees education spending, told Spellings she was upset that some states have lowered the requirements for what students must be able to do on reading and math tests to avoid the law's penalties. That creates a situation where some states look like they are performing well when they may not be.

"We look like we're doing a poor job when compared to states that set the bar low," McCollum said.

The issue has led some lawmakers to call for national educational standards to be included in the law when it is rewritten.

Spellings heard criticism from Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending. Both said they were upset about the law's $1 billion reading program called Reading First.

An Education Department inspector general's investigation found that people in charge of running the program and reviewing grants had conflicts of interest and steered money toward certain publishers of reading curricula.

Spellings expressed concern that the program might be in jeopardy, saying, "I hope we don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Rep. George Miller, D-California, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who lead the committees in charge of rewriting the education law, have indicated they support the reading program but intend to make changes to it.
My gut instinct on NCLB says that its renewal is likely (A law putting 100% of responsibility for 100% of student success on schools and 0% on parents voters is soooo politically sexy.) but that there will likely be changes, most likely a one or two-year extension on the deadline by which each and every single child in a given school must be reading, calculating, and know science at or above grade-level.

Some educators might think of any short postponement of these deadlines as a "stay of execution" which merely postpones the Day of Reckoning when a teacher will be labled as "underperforming" if a single child in his or her class fails to achieve either of the mandated minimum scores of "proficient or advanced" on a state-adopted-federally-approved standardized test.
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