Educators don't want law left behind

Reform of 'No Child' sought in Obama administration

December 07, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,

Many educators are looking to President-elect Barack Obama to revise a much-maligned federal initiative requiring annual tests to chart the progress of every school in the country.

But with a faltering economy and two foreign wars dominating the attention of the administration-in-waiting, even the sharpest critics of the No Child Left Behind law are resigned to waiting their turn.

"I think it will take us a while to do this," said Joel Parker, director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association, a teachers union. "It is politically complicated."

With no consensus on how to change the law, a trademark of the Bush administration, representatives of mainstream education groups said that revisions would be unlikely before late next year or early 2010. Parker, for example, expects Obama to spend time listening to various viewpoints before the administration pushes one position. What is clear is that no one expects the law to disappear.

While principals, school boards and governors disagree over the details of President Bush's program, the foundation of the law - that schools be held accountable for teaching every child, even those who are poor, minority, disabled or learning English - is now ingrained in the way American schools operate.

Yet many aspects of the law have been criticized. Some say that its goal - to have all children reading on grade level by 2014 - is absurd. Others say that the federal government is micro-managing school curriculum, an issue usually left to state and local school officials.

Obama has called for reform of early childhood education and higher pay for teachers, also saying he would "demand higher standards" from schools. But during the transition, education has taken a back seat to the economy and jobs. Names of possible candidates for education secretary are receiving scant attention.

During the campaign, Obama said the annual testing that is perhaps the most visible feature of No Child Left Behind should be de-emphasized, but he gave few details about how to accomplish that, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.

Among the issues being debated are whether national standards are needed for schools, whether states themselves can decide what happens to failing schools and whether a school's progress should be measured by how much students learn each year rather than by students passing the state test.

Another concern is ensuring that students have qualified teachers, an issue that many education policy experts do not believe has gained enough attention.

Those issues are so complicated that getting even the members of the same party to agree might take some time, education experts said.

The far right of the Republican Party and the left of the Democratic Party "hate" the law - but for different reasons, said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education advocacy group.

Conservatives think that the federal government has assumed too large a role in education and liberals see No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate, he said. "The question is whether the middle will hold," Petrilli said.

Still, broad support exists for some form of accountability, particularly from some civil rights groups. They believe the law has drawn attention to the achievement gap between minority and white children, forcing schools to do something about it. The measure is also supported by mainstream education groups seeking public school system reform.

The next step is for those groups to reach consensus on changes.

"I do think there has been more and more agreement that the federal law should be transformed," said Claus von Zastrow, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 18 national education associations. "We think there has been too much micro-management and not enough building of capacity in schools."

The law requires states to test students in reading and math in select grades from elementary through high school. By 2014, every student is expected to pass the tests that are developed by each state education department, a goal widely acknowledged as impossible.

Schools are punished if not enough students pass the tests for several consecutive years. The entire faculty can be asked to reapply for their jobs, or school operations can be turned over to an independent operator or the state.

As each year passes and the passing standards increase, more schools are being put into the "failing" category. According to data collected by the National Education Association, at least 15 percent of schools in most states did not meet standards last year, and in some states the percentages rose in recent years to 50 percent.

Pressure is building to find a more precise way of focusing on the worst schools.

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