Congress Considers Fixes to No Child Left Behind

After approving a massive higher education bill in September, Congress is beginning to turn its attention to a chief element of President Bush’s legacy: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Up for its required renewal, the law is prompting a wave of new ideas to give public schools more flexibility while not abandoning its focus on success for at-risk students.

“We didn’t get it all right when we enacted No Child Left Behind,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the Committee on Education and Labor. Among other shortcomings, the law “is not fair, not flexible and not adequately funded.”

But the law’s commitment to accountability must not change, said Miller, who with lawmakers of both parties has unveiled a bipartisan “discussion draft” of potential changes to the law. These include:

• A “smarter” accountability system, based on more than one standardized test of student achievement and giving schools flexibility in setting goals based on past performance;

• Performance pay for principals and teachers and mentoring for new instructors;

• Partnerships with colleges, universities and businesses to develop new standards assessing students’ readiness for college and careers, and;

• A Graduation Promise Act with new funding to improve the lowperforming high schools that have the highest dropout rates.

As with most aspects involving NCLB, the path to reform is not easy. Teachers’ unions have concerns about the performance pay, while experts at a recent hearing questioned whether a ‘smarter’ accountability system may get too complex to generate worthwhile information.

“There is a danger that in seeking to address every criticism of NCLB, the committee will make the law’s accountability provisions so complex that many new opportunities will emerge to exploit the law’s intricacies to undermine its core principles,” said Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an independent education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

For other leaders, such as Reg Weaver, National Education Association president, changes in rules and regulations are unlikely to produce major change until the legislation also includes broad, well-funded policies to address achievement gaps and other challenges facing low-income children.

The draft “makes only minor tweaks in the divisive and dysfunctional law that parents, teachers and public schools have been saddled with these past five years,” Weaver said. “The draft language is still too focused on high-stakes testing, punishments, the labeling of children and unfunded federal mandates.”

Instead, he noted, the bill should focus on reducing class sizes, promoting teacher training and expanding access to early childhood education.

For many civil rights groups, another key concern is the student transfer provisions of the current law. Under NCLB, students attending failing schools have the right to transfer to better performing schools, but such transfers often are hard to accomplish.

Typical is a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education describing the transfer process in Birmingham, Ala., where only about one-fourth of students who requested transfers ultimately received them because of concerns about overcrowding. The department required Birmingham to offer the transfer option to more students.

According to a report from the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, 70,000 students requested transfers in 2004 — only 5.5 percent of those who were eligible to make such requests. Only 1.7 percent of eligible students actually were able to transfer schools.

A commission leader says the draft bill would make few improvements in the choice aspects of the law and, in fact, may weaken current provisions. “The draft does not include strong provisions enabling parents to obtain relief and help when their children are trapped in substandard schools,” said Dianne Piché, the executive directorof the CCCR.

Depending on interpretation of the language, the new plan may actually reduce the share of children eligible for such transfers, she said.

According to one reform group, school districts should be required to conduct internal annual audits of available space for transfers. This policy would help ensure that schools are maximizing the use of available spaces, said Andrea Messina of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, which has gathered feedback on the law’s performance.

The annual audits may help determine whether the system “can keep NCLB’s promise to provide immediate options and help for students stuck in chronically struggling schools,” she added.

Moreover, few students in failing schools are able to access the free tutoring and supplemental services available to students under the law. Fewer than 17 percent of eligible students are taking advantage of these options, Messina said.

“We must continue to ensure that there is an academic bottom line on behalf of children that provides immediate help to students as we work to improve school performance,” she added. Miller’s committee is reviewing comments on its draft, but there is no timetable for legislative action.

–Charles Dervarics

 

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