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NCLB Outrages

Education Standards Likely to See Toughening

You were warned in these
pages: Obama is going to make NCLB

By Sam Dillon

WASHINGTON â President Obama and his team have
alternated praise for the goals of President
George W. Bushâs No Child Left Behind law with
criticism of its weaknesses, all the while
keeping their own plans for the law a bit of a

But clues are now emerging, and they suggest
that the Obama administration will use a
Congressional rewriting of the federal law
later this year to toughen requirements on
topics like teacher quality and academic
standards and to intensify its focus on helping
failing schools. The lawâs testing requirements
may evolve but will certainly not disappear.
And the federal role in education policy, once
a state and local matter, is likely to grow.

The administration appears to be preparing
important fixes to what many see as some of the
lawâs most serious defects. But its emerging
plans are a disappointment to some critics of
the No Child Left Behind law, who hoped Mr.
Obamaâs campaign promises of change would mean
a sharper break with the Bush-era law.

âObamaâs fundamental strategy is the same as
George Bushâs: standardized tests, numbers-
crunching; itâs the N.C.L.B. approach with lots
of money attached,â Diane Ravitch, an education
historian often critical of the education law,
said in an interview.

In a recent blog Ms. Ravitch wrote, âObama has
given Bush a third term in education policy.â

The clues emerge from the fine print of the
economic stimulus law that Mr. Obama signed in
February, which channels billions of dollars to
public education. The key education provisions
in the stimulus take the form of four
âassurancesâ that governors must sign to
receive billions in emergency education aid.

In one, governors must pledge to improve the
quality of standardized tests and raise
standards. In another, they promise to enforce
a requirement of the education law that their
stateâs most effective teachers will be
assigned equitably to all students, rich and
poor. A separate provision gives Education
Secretary Arne Duncan control over $5 billion,
which Mr. Duncan calls a âRace to the Top
Fund,â to reward states that make good on their

âWith these assurances and the Race to the Top
Fund, we are laying the foundation for where we
want to go with N.C.L.B. reauthorization,â Mr.
Duncan said in an interview. âThis will help us
to get states lining up behind this agenda.â

One fix the administration is preparing focuses
on failing schools.

Currently 6,000 of the nationâs 95,000 schools
are labeled as needing corrective action or
restructuring because they have fallen short of
testing targets under the federal law, which
nonetheless provided little financing to help
them. Most states have let the targets
languish. The stimulus law, in contrast,
provides $3 billion for school turnarounds, and
requires governors to pledge vigorous action.

The No Child Left Behind law allowed each state
to set its own academic standards, with the
result that many have dumbed down curriculums
and tests. Colorado even opted to use its
âpartially proficientâ level of academic
performance as âproficientâ for reporting

The stimulus requires governors to raise
standards to a new benchmark: the point at
which high school graduates can succeed â
without remedial classes â in college, the
workplace or the military. Mr. Duncan has gone
further, saying he wants to be a catalyst for
the development of national academic standards.

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education
policy at the Center for American Progress,
said she believed that Mr. Duncan was the first
top federal official to make such a call.

âTheyâre putting money and ideas behind what
they think are the changes needed in public
education,â Ms. Brown said. âThat signals their
seriousness about major reform.â

So far, the administration has not described
its plans for the education lawâs 2014 deadline
for schools to bring 100 percent of American
students to math and reading proficiency, which
experts have likened to a certain date by which
the police are to end all crime.

The teachers unions, which in 2007 fought a
bare-knuckle lobbying battle that scuttled
Congressâs last effort to rewrite the No Child
Left Behind law, are voicing muted concern over
a couple of provisions in the stimulus.

In one of the stimulus assurances, for
instance, governors must pledge that their
states are building sophisticated data systems.
Among other functions, such systems would link
teachers to students and test scores and thus,
in theory, enable the authorities to
distinguish between effective and ineffective
teachers. In a March 10 speech, President Obama
endorsed using such data systems âto tell us
which students had which teachers so we can
assess whatâs working and whatâs not.â

In an interview, Dennis Van Roekel, president
of the National Education Association, said he
did not like that part of the presidentâs

âWhen he equates teachers with test scores,
thatâs when we part company,â Mr. Van Roekel
said. But he added: âOver all, I just really
support Obamaâs vision to strengthen public

Randi Weingarten, president of the American
Federation of Teachers, said that her union
also had concerns about the presidentâs
enthusiasm for data systems, which she said
could be misused, but that she would give the
new administration the benefit of the doubt.

âThey have been consistent,â Ms. Weingarten
said. âTheyâre trying to do reform with
teachers, not to them.â

Including education reform ideas in an economic
stimulus bill was a policy improvisation made
on the fly during the December transition, when
Democratic governors were pleading for federal
help to prevent government layoffs amid the
economic crisis, aides to Mr. Duncan said.

In a Jan. 7 meeting with senior Democratic
lawmakers, Mr. Duncan announced the
administrationâs intention to channel billions
of dollars to the states in exchange for
governorsâ pledges to double down on education

Representatives David R. Obey of Wisconsin and
George Miller of California, the Democratic
chairmen of the House appropriations and
education committees, immediately saw the
importance of extracting reform promises from
the states, said a Democratic House staff
member who attended the meeting but is barred
from speaking on the record about committee

Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the House
education committee, said, âChairman Miller
said this couldnât just be free money, that we
had to get something in return.â

The administrationâs reform initiatives have
thrust governors into an unusually prominent
role in education policy, more often the
province of state school chiefs and big-city
mayors. Gov. Martin OâMalley of Maryland and
several other governors met with Mr. Duncan
during a National Governors Association meeting
in February.

âIn a nutshell,â Mr. OâMalley said in an
interview, âArne Duncanâs pitch was, âI want to
partner with governors; I know you can be
drivers for education reform.â He wants us to
step up.â

Mr. Duncan says that governors in Colorado,
Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and other
states have also responded favorably.

âThey are happy that we are pushing them to
where they know they need to go,â Mr. Duncan

— Sam Dillon
New York Times


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