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NCLB Outrages

Paige Details NCLB Implementation Progress

Ohanian Note: Paige thinks the flap over his terrorist remark is behind him and is moving right along with his steamrolling message. The day after this letter went out, the New York Times called for his ouster.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige today issued the following letter to Democratic members of the Senate Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee detailing the progress made since No Child Left Behind was enacted:

February 24, 2004

Honorable Edward M. Kennedy
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Kennedy:

I am writing in response to the January 9 letter that you and your colleagues sent me regarding the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In that letter you conveyed a number of criticisms regarding how the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) is implementing the law. Your letter signals your continued support of NCLB and a desire, which I share, to see NCLB take root and transform our education system into one that improves the academic achievement of every child.

This transformation is taking place in large part due to the aggressive action the Department and this Administration have taken in implementing this law. For the first time in history, every state has an approved accountability plan to ensure academic proficiency for every child. Achievement gaps are being identified and addressed. The success of schools is now being measured on the academic achievement of all students, so that children who need help aren't hidden in averages. Under-performing schools are getting the assistance needed to improve. In other words, in the two years since the bill was passed by Congress and signed by the President, we have begun to see critical movement in the public education system to address these important issues. Clearly, not only is NCLB taking root, but the American public is also increasingly aware of the real impact and future potential of the reforms of NCLB. I would like to address some of what I consider to be unfair assertions in your letter.

In the three years of this Administration, the Department of Education has transformed its relationship with both the states and local school districts. The level of outreach and cooperation extended to the states on a range of issues has been unprecedented. And, unlike previous years, this Administration is actively enforcing the laws that have been passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Regarding communication about the technical details of the law: while work naturally still remains to be done, this is a complex law with a number of significant provisions that left many questions to be answered by the Department. Under my watch, the Department has undertaken aggressive efforts to provide comprehensive regulatory and technical guidance on many, if not most, of the complex issues in the law. That takes thoughtful deliberation, conversations with the field, discussions with Members of Congress and their staff, and careful promulgation of regulations and guidance. The opposite tack—to promulgate rules and regulations, in a desire for speed, closeted in Washington without input from practitioners and key policymakers—was not an acceptable option to me. Compared to the 1994 reauthorization, issuing comprehensive regulations on Title I accountability, standards and assessments, including the negotiated rulemaking required by law—within 10 months of passage—took immense effort.

To put our efforts in context, when this Administration took office, only 11 states were in compliance with the 1994 Improving America's Schools Act. One of the first tasks we undertook was to address those states that were not in compliance with that law. In less than a year, we entered into compliance or timeline agreements with states to ensure that they would be in compliance with a law that had been in effect for seven years. This was critical, for, as you know, many of the principles of NCLB (development of standards, assessing students, identifying schools for improvement, to name a few) have their roots in the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization.

Then, upon issuing the new Title I NCLB regulations, it was our task to work with the states to institute accountability plans under No Child Left Behind in such a manner that balanced the interests of the states with the goals of the law. Considering that there are 50 different state educational standards and assessment systems in place and 50 different state governance systems overseeing more than 15,000 school districts, these negotiations were challenging. (You should also keep in mind that many of the state departments of education experienced changes in leadership during this time.) Yet we accomplished our goal, and on June 10, 2003—18 months after the law was enacted—all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had approved accountability plans in place. This was a historic day for our nation and educational system. It has been only eight months since those plans were approved, yet as of today we are seeing the impact of those state-driven accountability plans all across the nation.

How did this happen? In large part, this was due to our extensive and unprecedented interactions with the states. We discussed with every state its unique education system and needs. At my invitation and at the expense of the Department, delegations from 47 states came to the nation's capital to individually meet with senior Department leadership. Then, an accountability peer review team composed of Department staff and experts in the fields of accountability, standards and assessments visited every state to review its accountability plan. Staff from the Department followed up these visits with trips to provide greater technical assistance to the states.

We continue, on a daily basis, to interact with and provide in-depth technical assistance to states on their accountability plans. This is especially important as states revisit their plans and make adjustments based on implementation. State plans are not static: a number of states have already received approval from the Department to amend their plans. I should point out, however, that the number and nature of these amendments has been limited. To ensure all states are fully aware of the opportunity and process for amending their plans, Assistant Secretary Ray Simon recently sent a letter to all states providing guidance on how they can amend their state accountability plans.

Since last summer, our technical assistance and outreach efforts on NCLB have expanded. At all levels—from senior leadership to staff-level experts—the Department is communicating on a daily basis with states, districts and schools. Following are just a few examples of this effort:

The Department has issued guidance on numerous programs within NCLB. Since passage of the bill two years ago, 29 guidance documents on NCLB programs have been issued. In addition, we have sent almost 20 letters on NCLB implementation issues to chief state school officers, governors and other state officials.

The Department recruited and trained 50 teachers, principals, district officials, representatives from higher education, and national policy experts to serve as members of the Teacher Assistance Corps (TAC). The TAC has rendered direct support and technical assistance to nearly every state in meeting the challenges of the highly qualified teacher provisions of the law and will have visited 49 states by the end of February.

Extensive technical assistance has been made available to states, districts and schools as they develop and implement their Reading First programs. The Department recently awarded a multi-million dollar contract to establish the National Center for Reading First Technical Assistance.

In September 2003, President Bush and Secretary Paige announced the School Information Partnership, a unique public-private partnership designed to assist states in meeting the letter and the spirit of NCLB as it relates to educational data reporting. Through the financial support of the Broad Foundation and the Department, states have been given the opportunity, at no cost for the next two years, to report and analyze certain data through an easy-to-use web-based service.

The Department has provided technical assistance through conference calls, on-site visits, regional meetings, listservs and the Comprehensive Regional Assistance Centers. In addition, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education has held conference calls and meetings with State Title I directors, has for the first time initiated a program of national conference calls with local Title I directors, has held eight national conferences, and has sent 500 letters to various state and local offices on NCLB.

Several organizations, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools, are working with the Department to provide assistance to states and districts.

The Office of English Language Acquisition has conducted 52 video teleconferences and 35 onsite visits with the states to provide in-depth technical assistance. This effort facilitated the development and implementation of the integrated systems of standards and assessments, required by Title III of NCLB.

The Department has also recently created a toll-free number for local superintendents to call when they have questions about NCLB implementation in their local educational agency.

How states and districts use this wealth of information and technical assistance is a separate issue. As you know, this law is not "one size fits all." States have tremendous flexibility in implementing it. Enclosed, you will find a detailed memo entitled "Charting the Course," which is also available on the Department's website. This document outlines almost 40 elements of flexibility and decision-making that states have in implementing critical aspects of NCLB. Even a quick review of "Charting the Course" will show that states had numerous opportunities to design an implementation strategy that best meets their needs.

As we learned firsthand, each state has a unique set of issues to address, and thus no two state accountability plans are identical. Some states decided to use more elements of flexibility than others, but consistent with the principles of federalism and flexibility that characterize NCLB, each state presented a unique plan and rationale for that plan. The variety in state plans underscores the bipartisan intent of the law to build upon existing state accountability systems and reform efforts, not dictate uniformity. As I think you will agree, this is a testament to the strength of the design of the law and to the methods that the Administration pursued in implementing the law.

In implementing NCLB, we have addressed several pressing concerns regarding the measurement of progress of students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency (LEP), which are critical issues facing schools, districts and states. As I am sure you are aware, over the last several months I have announced new elements of flexibility in assessing students with disabilities and limited English proficient students and holding schools and districts accountable for their achievement. For special education, states, school districts and schools will have the flexibility to count the "proficient" scores of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take assessments based on alternate achievement standards. And just last week I announced that the Department was granting states greater flexibility in determining how LEP students are assessed and meet the adequate yearly progress requirements of the law. These policies, which will help schools meet the goals of NCLB, are right for students and respond to suggestions for improvements from the field. Our goal is to provide the maximum flexibility while remaining faithful to the spirit of the law. We continue to listen and examine issues being raised and will, if appropriate and consistent with the spirit of the law, address additional issues as soon as possible. I look forward to personally discussing the issues you raise as concerns regarding implementation.

Please know that more than any other time in its history, this Department is seriously enforcing the law. We have not issued waivers; we have withheld funds from states that have not complied with the law; and we have engaged in compliance agreements with those states that could not meet the law's timelines, including timelines that were instituted prior to NCLB. The Department has also upheld and uncompromisingly advanced the spirit of the law while the Administration has provided historic levels of funding.

As you know, under NCLB, America's schools are experiencing record levels of federal funding. Under President Bush, funding for Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs reauthorized by NCLB has climbed $7.4 billion, or 43 percent. What's more, with the flexibility added by NCLB, states, districts and schools can spend the money more freely than ever so long as they do what works to improve student learning and achievement.

The President recognizes that the Title I program is at the very heart of both the federal investment in improving elementary and secondary education and the reforms called for in NCLB. In his first four years, President Bush has requested more for Title I than the previous administration did during its entire eight-year term. The President's $13.3 billion request for Title I for FY 2005 would be an increase of $4.6 billion, or 52 percent, since 2001.

Despite these facts, some join your argument that these unprecedented funding levels are inadequate for states to implement NCLB. However, I have found that states are not fully utilizing the federal education funds available to them in a timely manner, allowing billions of dollars to remain in the federal Treasury instead of improving the education of our children. We must work together to help states understand the flexibility they have in using federal funds and ensure the funds appropriated each year are spent efficiently and effectively so they have maximum impact now.

Clearly, we are in concentrated pursuit of our national goal of grade-level proficiency in reading and math for every child. We must continue to regularly check our course and seek opportunities to fortify the reforms of NCLB and keep adding to the drive that will ensure all students achieve academic success.

I invite you to join us in our efforts to better educate local leaders in the use of NCLB to improve student learning, to encourage states to use the flexibility provisions in NCLB and to focus spending on areas where it is most needed.


Rod Paige

— Rod Paige
U. S. Department of Education, press release


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