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NCLB Outrages

Obama education chief Duncan to push schools reform

Ohanian Comment: Talk about "tired arguments"--Duncan's litany about every kid going to college is pretty stale. As though we didn't already have 3 people with engineering degrees for every available job. And our professional organizations are too weak-kneed to say the emperor has no clothes.

Mr. Duncan, I'm still waiting for the day when families have a living wage, adequate housing, and full health care. And a qualified librarian in every school.

For my full comment on the speech, go here.

By Greg Toppo

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to challenge educators, civil rights groups and others to put aside "tired arguments" about education reform to help him craft a sweeping reauthorization of federal education legislation by early 2010.

In a speech to be delivered Thursday in Washington to more than 150 education, business, civil rights, charitable and social services groups, Duncan plans to invoke the Rev. Martin Luther King's 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail that made the case for non-violent civil disobedience as state and local governments dragged their feet in integrating schools and communities. Duncan will tell the group that after 50 years of school reforms, court rulings and "watershed" reports, "we're still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high-quality education that prepares him or her for the future."

The planned speech, provided to USA TODAY on Wednesday, also will challenge the groups to focus on getting "great teachers and principals into underperforming schools" and giving schools a testing system that "accurately and fairly measures student growth and uses data to drive instruction and teacher evaluation," among other measures.

Let's build a law that respects the honored, noble status of "educators--who should be valued as skilled professionals rather than mere practitioners and compensated accordingly," Duncan says.

Education Department spokesman Peter Cunningham said Wednesday that Duncan hopes to hand lawmakers a viable bill in early 2010.

"This is up to the White House and Congress, but our goal is to be ready sometime early next year," he said.

The "stakeholders' forum," which has met monthly since last summer, represents 162 groups with wide-ranging interests. They include the USA's two biggest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, as well the NAACP, National Governors' Association, United Way of America, the Children's Defense Fund and the Business Roundtable, among others.

According to the speech preview, Duncan will urge the group to "bring a greater sense of urgency" to the task of reforming U.S. education, saying a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known in its current form--No Child Left Behind--offers the perfect opportunity to "end the culture of blame, self-interest and disrespect that has demeaned the field of education" and "build a transformative education law" that promotes a well-rounded education "worthy of a great nation."

Mary Kusler, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, welcomes Duncan's bid at "re-energizing" No Child Left Behind reauthorization, which has slowed in Congress over the past year because of a "lack of consensus" on several questions.

But she worries about pushing the process along too quickly.

"While we like the idea of getting it going," she says, "we don't want to sacrifice quality for speed."

Approved by Congress in 2001 and signed by President Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind pushed public schools to improve basic instruction for low-income, minority and disabled students, among others. But critics-- including Duncan, a former Chicago schools CEO--say it prompted states to lower standards and concentrate too much on children who had the best chance of improving enough to pass state skills tests.

Congress approved the law overwhelmingly, but it has since shed many of its supporters. In the speech, Duncan notes that many teachers "complain bitterly about NCLB's emphasis on testing" while many parents "just view it as a toxic brand that isn't helping children learn."

He notes that it deserves credit for exposing achievement gaps and focusing on education outcomes but says it was underfunded, doesn't tie teacher compensation to student performance and doesn't hold schools to high standards-- in the process, he says, it increases the USA's dropout rate.

"It's one reason our schools produce millions of young people who aren't completing college," Duncan says. "They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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