Bush education law: shift ahead?

No Child Left Behind Act could be overhauled by a new president and Congress next year.

Jim Rider/South Bend Tribune/AP
First day: Patrick DeBow had some words of advice for his son Morgan as he got ready for school in South Bend, Ind., earlier this month.
SOURCES: 2008 annual poll by Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

This could be the last back-to-school season for No Child Left Behind.

President Bush's signature domestic law took effect in 2002 with bipartisan support. It was a watershed in American education: Suddenly the goal line had moved from all children attending school to all students achieving "proficiency." And by requiring that English and math scores be reported by categories such as income and race, it spotlighted achievement gaps.

But the debates over how best to measure proficiency and close the gaps have been fierce – to the point that they've delayed the act's reauthorization, which was due last year. Changes to the law – and perhaps even its name – are now expected to wait until after a new president and Congress settle in next year.

Still, dozens of proposals for changes to NCLB have already surfaced on Capitol Hill. Some would tweak individual parts of the massive law, others would incorporate feedback put out by educational organizations, and still others would remove the law's teeth by allowing states to opt out.

One thing educators and policymakers can agree on: It's important to find ways to help students and schools that have fallen behind. "Because of NCLB, we are able now to identify those schools that are low-performing ... and it's going to be time to really roll up our sleeves and turn around those low-performing schools," says Joan Wodiska, who directs the committee overseeing education issues for the National Governors Association. "We've learned a lot over the past few years about what works and where there are hiccups in the law, and what we need … to meet the mission of the law."

Public opinion about the law is split, with about one-third of Americans seeing NCLB favorably, one-third unfavorably, and the remainder not knowing enough to weigh in, according to an annual poll released Thursday by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK), an education association in Bloomington, Ind.

Educational accountability is popular, says Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "The public is very supportive of accountability in principle … but in the NCLB practice [of it], their support is sliding." About 50 percent of Americans favor renewing NCLB with minimal changes or as it is, down from 57 percent last year, his organization found in a survey conducted with Education Next, a journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. (The wording of questions in this poll was different from that in the poll by Gallup and PDK.)

NCLB requires yearly gains in test scores for each subgroup of students in schools and districts, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. If schools fail to make "adequate yearly progress" over time, they must offer tutoring and allow students to transfer to better-performing schools. Eventually such schools become slated for corrective action, such as replacing some of the staff or restructuring the entire school.

Many groups have called for the law's accountability system to be refined or overhauled.

One possible change gaining popularity is the use of "growth models." These offer a way to track the progress of individual students over the course of a school year, which advocates say is fairer to schools and more useful for teachers and students.

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union in the United States, has called for states to be allowed to use such growth models for federal accountability. It also wants multiple measures of student achievement, not just standardized tests.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has allowed 10 states to test growth models. This is just one of the efforts she's made in recent years to respond to criticisms of NCLB and infuse it with more flexibility.

Because the current system places so much weight on whether students score at the proficient level as defined by each state, some states have tended to lower proficiency standards at least slightly, Professor Peterson says. That practice would fade if the law had a better measuring stick of student progress, he says, "and pressures would build to hold teachers accountable as well."

The federal government should give incentives for states to work together to develop common standards, say groups such as the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington. The alliance, which advocates the improvement of high schools, has also called for a revised law to place more weight on boosting graduation rates.

For civil rights organizations, NCLB's key role has been the push to narrow achievement gaps. "Efforts are now being made to upgrade teaching in the poorest schools in the country, and that's critical to improving the status and the opportunities for children of color," says William Taylor, vice chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington-based coalition of about 180 groups.

New York City is one district that's been making progress. Proficiency rates in math rose from 57 percent last year to 74 percent this year, and the gap between the math scores of fourth-grade African-American and white students narrowed by 16 percentage points, according to testimony by schools Chancellor Joel Klein at a hearing on Capitol Hill this summer.

Still, accomplishing the wide range of goals embodied in NCLB will require significantly more federal funding, say some members of Congress and groups such as the NEA. Early on, Mr. Bush increased education funding significantly. It's gone up about 78 percent since 2001, according to the US Department of Education. But that hasn't kept up with what the law has called for, says Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. The cumulative shortfall since 2002 is $85.6 billion, she says.

For public-school officials, one big question is whether a revised law will shift the balance of power back toward them. NCLB "really put the federal government in the driver's seat regarding daily operations of schools in a way it had never been," says Bruce Hunter, chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"Some people [in Washington] … have no understanding of how unhappy teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members are," Mr. Hunter says. He attributes the unhappiness partly to parents' and teachers' growing resentment of the testing culture and the way it has narrowed curriculum. "People do not want to throw out the idea of universal proficiency," he says, but "that steam is building up and is going to get released when we finally begin the reauthorization."

Although presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have begun to talk about their views on education, neither has yet released a detailed proposal for revising NCLB.

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