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Obama to Congress: rewrite No Child Left Behind by fall

President Obama exhorts Congress to rework the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education reforms before the start of the next school year. It will be a tough task politically, experts say.

By Staff Writer / March 14, 2011

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk to students at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Monday.

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President Obama continued his string of speeches on education reform Monday with a renewed call to fix No Child Left Behind.

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In a speech at Kenmore Middle School in Virginia, Mr. Obama highlighted problems with the current law, passed in 2002 under President Bush, and called on Congress to reform it by reauthorizing the act – officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – before the start of the next school year.

“Instead of labeling schools a failure one day and then throwing up our hands and walking away from them, we need to refocus on the schools that need the most help,” Obama said in his speech.

NCLB is not without it successes, such as shining a light on the achievement gap between students of different races and backgrounds, Obama said. But he added that the law needs changes, which include: rewarding schools for success, improving standards and assessments, getting the best teachers in front of the most disadvantaged kids, and giving more support and better pay to teachers.

'We cannot cut education'

In other speeches on education in recent weeks, Obama also emphasized his commitment to education and determination to prevent budget cuts in that area.

"We're going to have to cut any spending that we can afford to do without," he said. But added that "we can't be reckless, and we can't be irresponsible about how we cut…. We cannot cut education. We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive."

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 82 percent of America’s schools could fail to meet the goals set by NCLB this year, and also called for reforms.

“This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed,” he said.

Political hurdles

Despite the big push from the administration, however, getting Congress to pass a reauthorization this year will be tough, in large part for political reasons.

The Republicans are doing calculations about whether or not it’s in their interest to hand Obama a victory … and among Democrats, there’s disagreement as well,” says Andrew Rotherham, a cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education and author of the Eduwonk blog. “I think it’s a long shot.”

Obama has emphasized the amount of bipartisan agreement on what is needed to reform NCLB, and it’s true that education is an area where many Republicans agree with his strategies. But there are still significant political hurdles.

Under the current law, schools are labeled as failing when a single subgroup fails to make the targeted progress for that year, a standard that has led to a number of suburban schools – like Kenmore, where Obama spoke – where white students are doing well but the school is labeled underperforming because minorities or students with disabilities are not meeting the targets.

Is Obama's math right?

Still, some individuals and groups have questioned the administration's calculations leading to the conclusion that 4 in 5 schools will fail to meet targets this year. And many in the accountability community are concerned that the effort to change the definitions might soften standards and take away the spotlight from groups and minorities who may be struggling.

Obama told Kenmore students and teachers that "you guys are doing great," and highlighted it as one of those schools that shouldn't have been labeled as failing. But the data show that many subgroups at Kenmore, including black students, disabled students, and those with limited English, fall well below Virginia norms.

"So, are they in need of improvement or not?" asks Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. "If they are, what will his new accountability system do to keep the pressure on?... I think the devil is in the details."

Mr. Whitehurst agrees that getting action in Congress will be an uphill battle, though he notes that it may be possible to get a small "fix" to the problem of too many schools labeled as underperforming rather than a big overhaul. One possibility: Push back the date when all students are supposed to be meeting standards several years. Currently, it is set at 2014.

"It's going to be easier to get approval, particularly in the House, for something focused that doesn’t get into big issues of federalism," he says.

Another obstacle to Congress responding to Obama's call to reform NCLB: There are few consequences to inaction.

“It’s less important than people think,” says Mr. Rotherham. “The money keeps flowing.” “You’ve got some kids potentially getting tutoring who shouldn’t,” he adds, referring to one of the actions under NCLB that kicks in when a school fails to meet its targets several years in a row. “But it’s hard to get worked up about this…. It’s a big part of the problem for why not a lot is happening. There’s no big Damocles.”

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