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NCLB Outrages

Miller advocating more flexibility in 'No Child' law

Ohanian Comment: Miller will never admit he was wrong in back this disastrous bill. Margaret Spellings insists that it is 99% pure; Miller says they just didn't get it "completely" right. With "liberal lions" like this marching behind a corporate agenda, we don't need conservatives to do us wrong. Take a look at who puts money into Miller's coffers.

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Zachary Coile

Rep. George Miller, the Martinez Democrat who helped push President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law through Congress, is now leading the charge for significant changes to the education reform act that has provoked praise and grumbling from teachers, principals and parents.

It's a good law, Miller insisted Monday at a speech at the National Press Club, but Congress should try to fix some to the mistakes that have been revealed as the testing and accountability measure took effect.

"Throughout our communities and schools today, the American people have a very strong sense that No Child Left Behind is not fair, it is not flexible, and it is not funded," said Miller, who helped write the act in 2001. "And they are not wrong."

He later added, "This (current) legislation is really about changing some of those things that we didn't get completely right."

The changes could include providing schools more flexibility in how they meet the law's yearly targets for improving student performance; new incentives to help craft better tests of student achievement; and putting more emphasis on other barometers, such as graduation rates, to assess whether a school is improving or lagging behind.

Aggressive schedule

Miller, who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, wants to act fast, promising a vote to reauthorize the education law by his committee and by the House in September. It's an ambitious pace, but he has the backing of House Democratic leaders and the president, who doesn't want to see one of his signature domestic policy achievements scrapped.

The law was passed in 2001 with broad support in Congress, crafted by conservatives such as now-House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and liberal lions such as Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who will shepherd the bill's reauthorization in the Senate.

The act requires students to be tested in math and reading every year between third and eighth grade, then once in high school. Schools that fail to make improvement over several years face sanctions and loss of federal aid.

The law has stirred many complaints, among them: that students are being taught how to take tests, not how to learn; that the sanctions are punitive, not helpful to underperforming schools; that the tests are doing a poor job of measuring a school's performance and student aptitude.

Miller said Monday that after traveling across the country meeting with teachers, parents and state education officials, he's heard all the criticism. Other lawmakers have heard it, too, he said. But the core principles of the law - setting high standards and testing to make sure they are met - should not be changed, he said.

"We would be wrong if we waiver when it comes to the existing goals and standards of No Child Left Behind," Miller said. "Closing the achievement gap and helping all children learn (at) a high standard remain the right goals."

But Miller believes the law can be improved substantially by giving schools more flexibility for testing and in meeting the standards. Some states already are experimenting with new approaches.

A dozen states have joined a pilot program with the Department of Education that lets them use a "growth model," which tests how the same group of students perform over time - rather than measuring how this year's third-graders tested compared with last year's third-grade class. Some believe it's a better way to gauge whether a school is improving over time. Miller says he plans to take the system nationwide.

The models "will give us fair and better and more accurate information," he said. "The information will be timely and helpful to teachers and principals in developing strategies for the improvement and targeting of resources."

While students will continue to be tested in math and reading, Miller said he wants to put more emphasis on other factors - such as graduation rates - to assess a school's performance. Congress will likely offer states money to improve their tests to make sure they're getting a true sense of a student's aptitude.

Miller said his bill also would give teachers and principals "performance pay" for meeting the targets - a measure opposed by teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency.

House Republicans want to see the law reauthorized, but are wary of some of the Democratic proposals. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), warned that some of the suggested changes could "undermine transparency for parents and the ability to hold schools accountable for student performance."

Meeting standards

Ross Wiener, vice president for programs and policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for higher standards in K-12 education, said Miller's speech shows he has no plans to weaken the law.

"Some people want to say, 'Let's change the goals,' " Wiener said. "What he's saying is, 'Let's not change the higher standards, let's redouble our efforts to figure out how we meet them.' "

Wiener said Republicans and Democrats are likely to agree on keeping the core of the law intact. But lawmakers could split over how much to boost spending at a time of tight federal budgets.

House Democrats pushed through a spending bill that included an 8 percent increase in the 2008 budget for education, but the White House is threatening to veto the bill. Miller warned Monday that the president could undercut his legacy on education by vetoing the bill.

E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile@

— Zachary Coile
San Francisco Chronicle


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