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Obama Offers States an Exit to Parts of ‘No Child Left Behind’ Law

September 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama said on Friday that No Child Left Behind, which President Bush signed into law in 2002, is not working. Jeffrey Brown discusses the major changes to the law and what they mean for students and schools with Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale and Education Trust President Kati Haycock.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And we turn to the changes in a landmark education law.

Tom Bearden starts with some background.

TOM BEARDEN: Amid bipartisan praise, President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in 2002. The sweeping education reform sought to make sure more public schools and more students performed up to expectations.

But, almost 10 years later, President Obama said today, the law wasn’t working.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserves credit for that. Higher standards are the right goal. Accountability is the right goal. Closing the achievement gap is the right goal. And we’ve got to stay focused on those goals.

But experience has taught us that, in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children, instead of helping them.

TOM BEARDEN: The president said the law’s heavy reliance on annual testing led educators to teach to the test and de-emphasize history and science, in the quest to improve reading and math scores.

Despite that effort, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools risk being labeled failures under the law by 2014. So, the president today announced waivers for states if they offer their own plans that meet federal standards.

BARACK OBAMA: We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it, and replace it with something that does.

TOM BEARDEN: Mr. Obama insisted he is not weakening the law, but helping states set higher standards. And he said congressional delay in addressing the issue had forced his hand.

BARACK OBAMA: Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TOM BEARDEN: As many as 45 states are expected to start receiving the waivers early next year.

RAY SUAREZ: And we explore what those changes mean for schools and students.

For that, Jeffrey Brown spoke with a school superintendent and education advocate after the president’s plan was announced, but before he delivered his speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are, of course, a wide range of perspectives about the No Child Left Behind law and its impact. We get two views of it, as well as the president’s changes, now with Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an organization working to improve student outcomes, with an emphasis on lower-income and minority student, and Jack Dale is superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 11th largest school system. It has more than 175,000 students.

Welcome to both of you.

JACK DALE, Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools: Thank you.

KATI HAYCOCK, Education Trust: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kati Haycock, I will start with you.

What is the Obama administration responding to? What is the problem that needs to be fixed, from where you sit?

KATI HAYCOCK: Well, the important thing to keep in mind here is that the No Child Left Behind law has had an enormously positive impact in capturing the attention of educators around the country and in sending a signal that we expect improvements in achievement, and you can no longer hide under the average of your overall achievement, the underperformance of some groups of children, of minority children and poor children and the like.

JEFFREY BROWN: But?

KATI HAYCOCK: But 10 years have passed since that law was put into place. It should have been altered by Congress five years after it was put into place.

And the fact of the matter is, we have learned a lot in those 10 years about how to improve achievement, what works and what doesn’t. And the law’s sanctions and labels don’t take account of that. So what we’re finding is the kind of rigid structures of the law are getting in the way of efforts to improve achievement for all kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so let me ask you, Mr. Dale, how does that show itself, manifest itself in the classroom and in the schools, what kind of restrains? Why are schools having trouble meeting the goals?

JACK DALE: Well, I think the goals, as Kati just said, are lofty and appropriate.

What you see in the classroom is this obsession with testing, instead of an obsession with learning. And because we have been so much around the testing side of it, we haven’t paid attention to kids actually learning and all of the different things besides just learning to read and do computations with mathematics, but learning how to think critically, how to problem-solve, how to work with other kids and that kind of thing.

So the feedback I get repeatedly from parents is way too much focus on testing. So that’s one of the challenges right there. The other challenge was moving up the bar every year to assume that, in a given instant, 100 percent of the kids would always pass the test. And we had this focus on a one-shot piece of testing, as opposed to change that I think we should have is one where you can focus on kids: Did you learn? Did you not? If you didn’t learn it, then how can you relearn it and then demonstrate your competence?

JEFFREY BROWN: But as it stands now, many schools just can’t pass it.

JACK DALE: No, no, and in large part because you have these restrictions of how you use your time, not only from the federal level, but more from the state level, because the state actually controls more of our regulatory environment than the feds do.

But the feds overlaid this set of expectations that become impossible and nonsensical.

JEFFREY BROWN: So if president and Secretary Duncan are laying out changes now, with the main idea of giving more flexibility, I guess, to the states, what kind of impact would you — would you see that having?

KATI HAYCOCK: Well, what the hope is here — and it’s really important that states kind of step up — what the hope is here is states will step up with quite aggressive systems of their own, but ones that are more flexible to meet their needs.

So, for example, under current law, if a school doesn’t meet its targets, it has to do certain things specified by federal government. It has to give students choice to leave the school. It has to provide tutorial services, none, actually, of the things that we know really make a difference in helping students learn more.

So what this would allow a state to do is say, if a school meets by — misses its targets by a little bit, this is the kind of help we’re going to give the teachers in improving what they do or this is the kind of after-school help we will give the kids, not what the federal government has decided.

If the school, on the other hand, misses all of its targets and continuously fails, what the state will have to do is show what they’re going to do to make sure that that school changes quickly for kids who have been misserved for so long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, do schools — the new approach still puts requirements on the states and on local…

JACK DALE: Yes. I think you don’t want to lose that, because I think Kati would agree one of the benefits of No Child Left Behind was a very serious look at student achievement and expectations that all kids can, in fact, learn.

But what it does miss the mark on is, what are the interventions that schools can use that we have learned over the last 10 years, or even longer, that really work in a school? For example, we have had three schools who were in sanction a year ago and — or, actually, two years ago, and then through two successive years of phenomenal improvement are out of sanctions.

But the things that they did don’t line up at all with what the prescriptions were in the federal government, like what Kati was talking about. What we have learned is how important it is for teachers working as teams of teachers on very difficult learning situations for some kids who are way behind curve, but how can we accelerate their learning during one school year to have them up with their colleagues?

And that’s not an easy thing to do…

JEFFREY BROWN: But you see in these potential changes, even though there are requirements, still, real change for your…

JACK DALE: I’m hoping so. I think the devil will be, as always, in the details, hence, Kati’s caution, I think…

JEFFREY BROWN: Hedging your bets a little, yes.

KATI HAYCOCK: And the devil will be in what states propose.

JACK DALE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

KATI HAYCOCK: One of the things that’s really important, I think, to keep in mind here is that, as Americans, we need — we need our schools to make not just a little bit of improvement over the next few years, but a lot of improvement over the next few years. So this can’t be about taking our foot off the pedal.

We desperately need our kids to learn more. They’re not learning nearly as much as their counterparts in other countries. And that is especially true of poor and minority kids, who are now a majority of our kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much concern is there still about the government having too much say in what the states and districts do at this point? Because this is a — that has been one of the criticisms of No Child Left Behind.

And there’s going to be a legal debate, I think, a challenge to this, right? And we can’t resolve the legal debate here, but from where you sit, is it still an issue, still something…

JACK DALE: Well, what I have to deal with when reality hits the ground in Fairfax is, I have got federal requirements. I have a state legislature who doesn’t always agree with the federal government, and so they have their own set, not necessarily in sync at all, in fact, sometimes contradictory.

And then we have local community members who want yet something different. So, one of the things I want to see in this flexibility is, for us, particularly in the community I serve, is, I can’t just focus on reading and math. I have got to focus on a lot richer set of skills for kids in critical thinking and problem-solving, complex problems of the world.

And that’s the things that our kids need to engage in. And how can we backward-map that into demonstrating competency in reading and math and that sort of thing? But it’s a very different focus that I need some flexibility on to meet our community’s demands of our kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see this as an issue around the country, the federal role?

KATI HAYCOCK: Well, interestingly, our national government actually has less power and less authority and less involvement in education than virtually ever other developed country in the world.

The problem really isn’t federal, the federal role here. The problem is the one Jack talked about. We have multiple levels of government that don’t talk to each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s not changing, though.

KATI HAYCOCK: That’s not changing in — but what is changing is the balance between federal and state is righter, I think, this time.

What essentially the federal government is suggesting is that we still have a need to move our country ahead quickly in education, both for all kids and for the kids who have been behind. But we’re going to set the goals here, keep that tight, but keep looser how you get there.

And so what I think this is likely to do, although it won’t happen overnight, is begin get more ownership from states and fewer conflicts between federal and state ideas about what should be done, which should make it easier for reform-minded educators to move ahead.

JACK DALE: Like, one of the examples that is proposed is relaxing some of the restrictions on how we can allocate and spend the different title funds, Title I, Title II, Title III, et cetera, which is part of the federal allocation.

That gives me — if that happens, that gives me flexibility to figure out where best to place those resources, instead of in a prescriptive methodology that may not work for us in Fairfax.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jack Dale and Kati Haycock, thank you both very much.

KATI HAYCOCK: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: After we spoke with Jack Dale, he announced he would step down as superintendent of Fairfax Public Schools in 2013.