Commission Suggests Changes to No Child Left Behind Law
A bipartisan commission delivered more than 200 pages of recommendations on improving the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act on Tuesdaythe most detailed set of recommendations Congress has received yet on the 2002 law, which comes up for renewal this year. Early debate between congressional Democrats and the White House had made many observers wonder whether a bipartisan reauthorization would happen this year. But the emphasis yesterday was on urgency, andone important dissent from the teacher's unions asidethe NCLB Commission received early praise from both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the Department of Education.
The commissionwhich includes two former governors, the chairman of Intel and the CEO of State Farm, as well as a former teachers' union president and a recently retired middle school teacherspent the past year studying the controversial law, holding 12 public hearings. Its report offers 75 ideas, many of them aggressive changesincluding making teachers' employment dependent upon their students' test scores, building science tests into the accountability structure, and drawing up a set of voluntary national standards. These reforms are tough but not as controversial as some of the recommendations the White House issued in January, like private school vouchers and district takeovers.
At the top of the list is a call for voluntary national standards. NCLB mandates that every state drafts its own standards and makes matching annual tests, on which all students would have to score "proficiently" by 2014. Each state complied, but each wrote very different tests with very different definitions of "proficient." Many of them, the commission suggests, are not high enough. "When young people in Milwaukee and Atlanta are competing with young people in Beijing and Bangladore," the report argues, "it is difficult to understand why Wisconsin's definition of proficiency should be different from Georgia's."
Another recommendation would add science tests to the law's accountability regime, asking all students to prove proficiency in science by 2014 as well as math and reading.
Both of those recommendations could prove politically difficult. Unions and local leaders are wary of more high-stakes testing, and national standards have long faced opposition from local leaders concerned about federal intrusion. "It's not that we teach math differently," explains Chris Lohse, the Montana State Education Agency's federal liaison. "It's just we're not sure the beltway understands how math should be taught."
But the commission emphasized it thinks the day for national standards has come. "The debate that has been raging since the time of Lyndon B. Johnson ÃÂÂ was settled by No Child Left Behind," says Roy Barnes, the former Georgia governor and the commission's cochair, arguing there is now widespread agreement that education is primarily a federal responsibility. "The sky did not fall. I think they're ready for it. It's the next logical step." Indeed, Sen. Edward Kennedy already has introduced legislation recommending voluntary national standards.
It was not national standards but a recommendation by the commission on teacher quality that proved the most controversial today, with one commission memberThomas Hobart Jr., the former president of New York State United Teachers and vice president of the American Federation of Teachersdissenting, and both the AFT and the National Education Association slamming the idea. That recommendation would require teachers not just to prove they are "highly qualified," a mandate of the law judged via certificates and diplomas, but also "highly qualified effective," a provision that would be judged via students' test scores. If teachers did not show that they had improved student test scores as well as three quarters of their peers had for three years in a row, they would face serious consequences, including not being allowed to teach in certain schools.
Defending the provisions, the commissioners emphasized they are trying to do "what's best for kids," not adults. But Hobart took issue with that goal. "We can't do what's good for kids and not do what's good for adults," he said. "It's totally unfair to the kids as well as the teachers."
Hobart also pointed out that the teacher quality provisionsand many others in the reportall depend upon a $400 million commitment from the federal government, the cost required to build a sophisticated student information system in every state within four years, another of the report's recommendations.
Behind all of the commission's ideas is a strident call for urgency. "This is the challenge of our age," Barnes says, citing an international test in which American students rank behind international peers. "This [determines] whether we have a generation of children that are going to be able to compete internationally. That in turn determines whether we're going to be a successful nation."