Several urban education leaders testified during a congressional hearing in Washington this week about key reforms that are helping their troubled school systems narrow the achievement gap. The panel included New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein and D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, two mayor-appointed leaders whose work turning around failing inner-city schools is being closely watched by educators around the country. They were joined by their bosses and the mayors of their respective cities, Michael Bloomberg and Adrian Fenty, as well as the leaders of the Atlanta and Chicago public school systems.
There were few, if any, surprises during the testimony phase. But when the discussion turned to what can be done to improve the No Child Left Behind law, Klein and Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of Chicago public schools, ripped on one of the unintended consequences of the law: the dumbing down of state curriculum standards. "I know this is hard for you to hear Chairman [George] Miller, but we need national standards and national assessments," Klein said. He pointed out that the country needs an accurate and uniform way to measure how students are doing across states and against students from other developed and emerging economies. For every state to have its own set of standards, Duncan added, "just doesn't make any sense." Miller, who has called for more rigorous standards but resisted federal intervention, didn't respond to Klein's challenge.
Rhee offered another idea to improve NCLB that has also been highly contentious: tying teacher pay to student outcomes. As the head of the only school district in the nation that has fallen into "high-risk" status with the federal government for its dismal performance, Rhee is trying to narrow the achievement gap by getting rid of ineffective teachers and using bonuses to encourage the best ones to work in challenging schools. Ultimately, she wants to evaluate teachers based on test scores and other measures of student performance. Teacher unions have traditionally resisted using test scores to compensate teachers. Again, the response from lawmakers was silence. But they promised to take their advice into consideration when a revised version of NCLB comes for a vote. Klein injected a sense of urgency toward the end of the discussion when he said, "The clock is ticking."