Politics & Government

Lawmakers outline plan for reworking No Child Left Behind

Arne Duncan with President-elect Barack Obama in December 2008.
Arne Duncan with President-elect Barack Obama in December 2008. Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT

WASHINGTON —Saying the current education policies are failing kids, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of mostly Democratic senators plan to introduce a set of revisions that would move away from rigid testing and toward flexibility for local school districts. Congress is four years overdue for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which offers a slate of regulations and funding for K-12 education. Part of the push is to revamp No Child Left Behind, the landmark Bush-era legislation that focused on closing the achievement gap for minority children but that parents and educators have lambasted as too narrowly focused on testing. "No Child Left Behind has created a system that punishes failure over rewarding success," said Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who, along with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., helped lead the months-long effort to develop the principles. "Rather than tightening our grip, we will set clear and ambitious goals and support local efforts to achieve them," Bennet said. At a news conference Wednesday at a Washington public school, Duncan and a group of moderate senators slammed No Child Left Behind as a law that's frustrated parents, teachers and principals across the country. Duncan, a former schools superintendent in Chicago, said that under current law, states could lower their standards so that more students appeared to be succeeding. The law focuses too much on how students achieve grade-level goals and too little on the goals themselves, he said. "We want to flip that," Duncan said. "High standards, but more flexibility. We can't begin to micromanage 95,000 schools from Washington. We don't want to." The law’s impact, he said, has been a "dumbing down of standards and a narrowing of curriculum." Hagan said the group would introduce legislation "in the coming weeks" to overhaul No Child Left Behind, and Duncan said he wanted to see it pass by the August recess. Hagan said new legislation must encourage all progress _ recognizing, for example, when a teacher helps a fifth-grader move up from a third-grade reading level to a fourth-grade level. Testing now focuses primarily on whether children are at or below grade level. The group also wants to: increase accountability for funding going to the poorest schools, known as Title I recipients; hold teacher-training programs accountable for their graduates' performance; focus more federal money on so-called turnaround schools, with the highest needs; and encourage flexibility with more programs such as the federal Race to the Top competition. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, helped write No Child Left Behind, but he said at Wednesday's event that the law needed to be improved and that Democrats and Republicans could find common ground this year. The senators' work on the principles comes as Obama prepares to travel to Florida and then to Massachusetts to talk about education. Other senators who worked on the proposed legislation include Democratic Sens. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Thomas Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Mark Begich of Alaska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. CHANGING 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND'

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of moderate mostly Democratic senators unveiled their proposal Wednesday at a news conference at a Washington elementary school. Among their goals: _ Designing a testing structure that recognizes gains and is tailored to individual schools' specific situations, what the senators called "a more nuanced approach." _ Focusing dollars and attention on turning around especially troubled schools in the bottom 5 percent of each state. According to the senators, 13 percent of high schools produce 51 percent of the nation’s dropouts. _ Holding teacher preparation programs accountable for how well they train teachers. Nearly 50 percent of new teachers drop out of the profession within their first five years in the classroom. _ Encouraging more innovation through programs such as President Barack Obama'’s Race to the Top grant program. Last year, several states competed for millions of dollars in grant money. The rewards were based largely on how well states encouraged flexibility and innovation, including the encouragement of charter schools. _ Closing a loophole in requirements for a school to receive Title I funding, which is designed for schools with high percentages of low-income students. The senators want a school-by-school accountability system, rather than just at the district level.


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