No Child Left Behind Act faces overhaul, political donnybrook
by Zachary Coile
In 2002, two of Congress' liberal Democratic lions - Rep. George Miller of Martinez and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy - stood behind President Bush as he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a law they promised would shine a bright light on the failures in America's public schools and kick-start reforms.
Five years later, Miller, now chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is still a believer. But after traveling the country - listening to complaints from parents, teachers, school administrators and governors about the law's testing regime and stiff sanctions - he now admits it needs fixing.
"We've learned a lot, and we shouldn't ignore that evidence," said Miller, who is leading the overhaul of the law in the House, which starts this week. "What we're trying to do in this reauthorization bill is to look for those changes to make this a smarter, fairer, better law."
Reform is coming to No Child Left Behind, but the question is what kind. Teachers unions, which bitterly oppose the law, are pushing to relax its rigid testing rules and penalties. Business groups, eager for better-educated workers, want to see the tough accountability measures preserved or expanded. Many states and local school districts are clamoring for more flexibility in implementing the law, which expires this year.
Miller is seeking a middle ground: He wants to keep the law's requirement of annual tests in reading and math for third- to eighth-graders and 10th-graders, but add other measurements - such as percentage of kids in college-prep classes - to help schools show they are meeting the law's demands to make yearly progress in student achievement.
The president, who sees the law as a crucial part of his legacy, has dug in his heels. Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, a fellow Texan who helped write the law, warned last week that Congress was preparing to weaken it.
"We are on the right track, we need to stay the course," Spellings said. "We don't need to water this law down or change directions now. It is a good and strong law that is reasonable, necessary and doable for our kids."
Education policy experts say the changes aren't likely to be revolutionary. Miller and Kennedy, whose Senate Education Committee will take up the law later this fall, still believe the idea of setting high goals and demanding that schools achieve them is the right approach. But they now appear ready to revisit the details of the law.
"This bill is not a major overhaul, it's more of a correction," Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said of the draft bill that Miller and the panel's top Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), released late last month. "It is not an effort to throw standards-based reform overboard. ... It's trying to address what have been perceived to be the major problems of the law."
For many teachers, the mere mention of the words "No Child Left Behind" draws scorn. Many complain they now spend much of their time getting students ready for the tests. A survey by the Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 schools had cut instruction time for other subjects - such as history, art and music - to focus on reading and math.
"It narrows the curriculum," said Joel Packer, a policy manager for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "Particularly in reading, there is this increasingly strict curriculum being imposed that teachers feel doesn't treat them as professionals and is taking creativity out of the classroom."
Polls show that the public is also growing weary of the reliance on testing. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll in June found that 52 percent of public school parents felt there was too much testing, up from 32 percent in 2002. And 75 percent of public school parents said the focus on testing was leading teachers to teach to the test, not the subject matter.
Miller hopes to address the complaint by allowing states to use other factors to judge a school's improvement: graduation rates, rates of students taking Advanced Placement classes and going to college, as well as results from statewide exams on history, science, writing and other topics. But math and reading scores would still dominate, accounting for 85 percent of a school's index of yearly progress for elementary and middle schools and 75 percent for high schools.
Critics have attacked Miller's approach from both sides. Teachers unions and advocates for states and school boards say the proposal still relies too heavily on the two tests. But Spellings and business groups warn that it could create a confusing new accountability system for parents, which might allow some states or individual schools to rig the results.
"We're concerned that it may provide too many opportunities for schools to game the system and obscure the fact that students are not progressing toward reading and doing math at grade level," said Arthur Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Some parents and educators say the law is shortchanging gifted students: Schools are rated based only on whether they get kids to "proficiency" in math and reading, but they get no credit for getting kids beyond proficient.
"It's not that teachers don't want to challenge those gifted kids, but there is so much pressure on them to pay attention to the other kids," said Susan Goodkin, president of the California Learning Strategies Center, a Ventura-based group that works with parents.
Many schools object to being labeled as underperforming because they missed the targets for one subgroup - say, if a small number of African American students failed to reach proficiency in math - which triggers tough sanctions.
"If School A hits 80 percent of its targets and School B hits 20 percent of its targets, under the current law they are both treated the same way," said Reginald Felton of the National School Boards Association. "That's not fair."
Miller wants to ease the penalties on schools that narrowly miss the targets, giving them more freedom to spend federal dollars to help those that missed the goal. But the administration says it would let too many schools off the hook and keep all students from getting free tutoring promised under the original law.
The draft House bill also offers more flexibility in testing special needs students - giving states up to two additional years before English language learners must take reading and math tests in English, and allowing more students with disabilities to take modified tests. Spellings warned that it could hinder the progress made by those groups.
There's one key area where the White House and Congress agree: expanding the use of "growth models," a new type of test that gauges how the same group of students performs over time, rather than measuring this year's third-graders against last year's third-grade class. A dozen states are using the new measurements under a pilot program with the Department of Education, and now more states would get the chance.
The original act was the product of a rare left-right consensus in Washington - a shared view that strong accountability was needed in the public schools - and passed by huge bipartisan majorities: 381-41 in the House; 87-10 in the Senate.
But the consensus may be cracking. A Republican bill in the House by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind has more than 60 co-sponsors. A similar bill is being pushed in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
On the right, "there's a split between the accountability hawks and those who see the law as a substantial achievement of this administration and those who either have buyer's remorse - who backed it in 2001 to support the president but now regret it - or those who weren't in Congress and now see it as inconsistent with conservative traditions," said Frederick Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
The split is even more evident in the Democratic Party. All the major presidential contenders have turned sharply against the act. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said at a recent debate that he would scrap it. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told a group of union teachers in July, "Don't come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind."
The law is so closely identified with the Republican president and the teachers unions are such a key voting bloc in early primary states that it has become an easy target - even to senators such as Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who voted for it.
"While the children are getting good at filling in all those little bubbles, what exactly are they really learning?" she asked delegates at a National Education Association meeting in New Hampshire earlier this year.
The rising anti-No Child sentiments in both parties may make it tough for Kennedy to corral the 60 votes needed to reauthorize the law in a divided Senate. So far he's divulged few details about his plans - leaving the fight for now to the House.
Miller is already facing opposition from one powerful player in his backyard - the California Teachers Association. The teachers union plans to announce Monday that it will rally its 340,000 members to urge Congress to block Miller's legislation.
"There hasn't been any real reform ... it's still one-size-fits-all testing," said David Sanchez, the group's president.
In the House, the fate of the law could rest in the hands of the 12 freshmen who sit on Miller's committee, who did not vote for the law and heard intense criticism of it during their campaigns. Miller said that's part of why he's pushing for changes.
"Some people just want to extend the current law - I don't think there are the votes in Congress to do that," he said. "People understand this law has to be made fairer, has to be made more flexible."
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