President Obama talks to students at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., in this Oct. 19, 2009, file photo. Viers Mill was selected as a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon school.

Obama's No Child Left Behind revise: a little more flexibility

The Obama administration is proposing fundamental changes to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education reform policy, such as dropping the strict yearly progress goals.

The education blueprint that President Obama sent to Congress Monday retains the structure and spirit of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Law – annual testing and data-driven accountability – but adds resources and flexibility to meet new goals.

The thrust of the changes is to lessen the emphasis on yearly improvement – and the federal prescriptions for failure – and instead to focus on broader measures of progress.

Out is the widely disliked measure of “adequate yearly progress” in reading, math, and dropout rates, which were seen as too harsh and arbitrary. Also out is the demand that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

The Obama administration's new goal: that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career by 2020.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a teleconference with reporters on Monday. “Behind that, we want to create the next generation of great assessments.”

'Failing' schools

How so-called failing schools will be treated under the Obama plan illustrates the changes the administration wished to make to No Child Left Behind.

The 2001 NCLB law prescribed penalties for schools that failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals for certain groups of students based on race, ethnicity, income, and disabilities. The result was one-third of all US schools, including many schools deemed successful by other measures, were designated as failing and faced loss of federal funding under NCLB.

By contrast, the Obama blueprint calls on states to identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and to take strong measures to upgrade those schools, including firing the principal and teachers.

“This blueprint lays the right markers to help us reset the bar for our students and the nation,” said Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, in a statement.

But teachers unions, who strongly backed the Obama presidential campaign along with those of many other Democratic candidates in 2008, protested that the Obama plan scapegoats teachers without giving them the authority to make needed changes. That opposition could make the rewrite a hard sell to some Democrats. Republicans have yet to endorse the Obama approach.

'A good start'

Experts saw it as a middle ground.

“It’s thoughtful. It’s an improvement over what’s there. It’s a good start to the conversation,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy, which has done the most comprehensive studies of the impact of NCLB.

Mr. Jennings welcomes the shift in the Obama plan toward looking at student outcomes over time.

Under the old NCLB system, a teacher could boost student learning two grade levels, but if the student was still reading below grade level, the school could be seen as failing. The Obama plan considers a wider range of measures for school progress beyond NCLB testing in reading and math, and it gives states and school districts more flexibility to reform their systems without risk of losing federal funding.

“The Obama plan would represent a very significant improvement over the last eight years,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary in the Reagan Education Department.

“It’s more prescriptive about what kids learn and less prospective about how states and districts should operate their schools,” he adds.

But some NCLB critics say that the Obama plan still keeps too much emphasis on high-stakes testing. “We are disappointed that they continue on testing all children in Grades 3 through 8. No other countries have so much testing,” says Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) in Boston.

He, too, hails the demise of adequate yearly progress measures for all students, though. “It’s been a very destructive approach. It’s good to see it go away,” he adds.

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