Everyone agrees that No Child Left Behind should be reauthorized. But agreement on what a revised bill would look like has so far proved an unreachable hurdle.
A new Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill, as it is formally known, is finally getting a hearing in the Senate Wednesday – more than three years after the act was due for reauthorization, and after countless calls for Congress to take it on.
Proponents laud the proposal for fixing some of the glaring problems in the current law while giving states and districts more flexibility. Critics charge that it has so gutted the language of accountability as to be meaningless.
The bill does away with the controversial NCLB notion of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) timetables, replacing them with a nebulous expectation of “continuous improvement.”
“Accountability is who does what by when,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president of governmental affairs for the Education Trust, which works to close the achievement gaps for low-income and minority students. “There’s no when and no clear what, so there’s no accountability. The ‘continuous improvement’ language is a step back to the 90s.”
The bill is being heard by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee where Senator Harkin is the chairman and Senator Enzi is the ranking member.
Along with scrapping AYP some of the key provisions in the 868-page bill include:
• Requiring states to adopt college- and career-ready standards.
• Requiring states to identify the 5 percent of high schools and other schools with the largest achievement gaps, as well as the bottom 5 percent of high schools and other schools that are considered persistently low-achieving. They would be required to offer supports and interventions, though in the case of the achievement gap schools it’s unclear what those measures might be.
• Keeping NCLB’s testing requirements in place, but giving states more latitude in determining whether to use one annual high-stakes test or a series of tests throughout the school year.
The original proposal released last week also included a number of teacher-evaluation requirements, including mandating that states develop evaluation systems based in part on student achievement, and that they more equitably distribute effective teachers among high-poverty schools.
All of that, however, was largely scrapped in negotiations over the weekend in order to get buy-in from GOP senators.
“We are pleased that Senators Harkin and Enzi revised their ESEA reauthorization proposal after listening to the concerns of teachers and others who believe that teacher evaluation systems should be designed on the local level, with teachers working with district officials to get it right,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.
While union advocates are concerned about evaluations being used unfairly and put in place precipitously, the conservative critique mainly centers around Washington overreaching.
“We’ve now had more than a decade of comprehensive school reform … and most observers would agree we’ve seen little evidence that the feds are good at making troubled schools get better,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Hess argues that the emphasis for the federal government’s role should be on ensuring transparency and accurate reporting of data rather than specific accountability measures.
In fact, he says, the odd marriage of liberal teachers’ unions and conservative Republicans uniting to push back federal mandates is a sign that reformers have overreached, pushing some ideas aggressively before it was clear that they worked or were ready for broad implementation.
“The design of NCLB and the push by reformers so overshot the mark in 2001 that even reform-minded Republicans like Senator Alexander are finding themselves closer to the [National Education Association] than to language of NCLB,” says Hess.
The bill has received praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has long called on lawmakers to produce a reauthorization, and took matters into his own hands this fall by offering states broad waivers from NCLB requirements in exchange for signing on to certain reform priorities.
That praise, however, became distinctly more muted after the teacher evaluation provisions were dropped.
“I appreciate the efforts of Senators Harkin and Enzi to build into the reauthorization bill more flexibility for states and districts while maintaining accountability at every level,” Secretary Duncan said in a statement Monday. “I believe, however, that a comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward. “
Education Trust, along with various civil rights groups, have been among the fiercest critics of the proposal, and Ms. Wilkins says the current stop-gap measures to deal with the most glaring NCLB problems – like the waivers – are preferable to a bad reauthorization.
But other groups – including a coalition of nonprofits that includes Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools – have voiced support for the bill.
Of course, getting a bill – even one with bipartisan support – before a committee is no guarantee that it will become law, and most observers give this bill’s chances long odds.
“Even if it passes the Senate, I can’t see it passing the House,” says Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst for Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s not conservative enough.” Ms. Hyslop also says that despite many merits – including more flexibility for schools and more focus on college and career readiness rather than just basic proficiency – the bill has enough problems that it would be a step backward.
Still, she says, “it shows both sides can come together and have a starting point for negotiations." She adds, "It’s a foreshadowing of what’s going to come in 2013,” after the distractions of the 2012 political season are over.
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