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Obama Orders Revamp of ‘No Child Left Behind’

August 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Monday that President Obama would sign an executive order to allow schools who are falling short of No Child Left Behind to circumvent the law. Gwen Ifill discusses the policy shift with Justin Snider of The Hechinger Report.
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GWEN IFILL: And to our second education story: about changes to the law known as No Child Left Behind.

Nearly a decade after it was enacted, a growing number of schools are having trouble meeting the law’s benchmarks. States had been required to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

But, today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the president would sign an executive order to allow schools who are still falling short to circumvent the law.

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: The law No Child Left Behind as it currently stands is four years overdue for being rewritten. It is far too punitive. It’s far too prescriptive, led to a dumbing-down of standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum.

At a time when we have to get better, faster education than we ever have, we can’t afford to have the law of the land be one that has so many perverse incentives or disincentives to the kind of progress we want to see.

GWEN IFILL: For more, we are joined by Justin Snider. He’s a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on education.

Welcome.

We heard Arne Duncan said today that we should be tight on goals, but loose on the means of achieving them. Why is an executive order needed to achieve these goals?

JUSTIN SNIDER, The Hechinger Report: Well, I would say it’s because we have tried the other way around. And we have tried to be tight on how to do it. And it hasn’t worked.

We have been under NCLB for nine years now, and the progress that everybody wanted to see, everybody expected to see — well, actually, realists probably realized we’re not going to — we’re not going to see it — hasn’t happened.

And so we have got to try something different this time.

GWEN IFILL: And you’re referring — when you say the progress that people — realists wanted to see was for Congress to act. And you say that is not going to happen.

So, explain to me what exactly this waiver would mean. Who gets it? Who decides who gets it? Exactly what do you have to do to get a waiver?

JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, Duncan has made it clear that all 50 states are eligible to apply for a waiver.

Unlike in Race to the Top, where it was clear from the beginning only some states would actually succeed, all 50 could succeed. But it is an application process. So a state will apply, and there will be an outside — not just the Department of Education — committee judging the state’s application and deciding whether to issue the waiver.

Whether it’s issued or not will depend on: one, whether the state has adopted standards that make it look like students will graduate from high school college- and career-ready; and, two, whether states are doing anything to evaluate their teachers’ effectiveness; and, three, whether they’re trying to turn around failing schools; and, four, whether they’re doing anything — or whether they have any plans to implement new accountability provisions.

Instead of the top-down way that is currently in place, they need to come up with local — local methods to enforce accountability.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about accountability.

We just heard John Tulenko’s report that talked about the — the cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools, and how people, some people there, feel that that was because of the pressure to teach to the test, and that you had to raise test scores in order to keep your job.

Is — did the administration cite that or those — those incidents at all as a reason for trying to move on this now?

JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, I think Obama and Duncan and other people have been saying over and over again that what we have in Atlanta and elsewhere is a case of a few bad apples.

But I think, more and more, there’s reason to question that. We have seen similar scandals in Philadelphia, in D.C., and elsewhere that have been noted. And it’s interesting who is discovering those scandals. In many cases, it’s journalists.

And, in Atlanta, it was a very, very deep investigation, unlike in Washington, D.C. So, the closer you look, it appears the more widespread cheating is. But that’s not something that we’re hearing from the top.

GWEN IFILL: Arne Duncan said today that there was a universal clamor for this — for something to be done, even if Congress didn’t act.

Is that so? Is there — or is every state in the union saying, I want to do something about this now, or are there people who are fairly happy with the way the situation is now?

JUSTIN SNIDER: I would say most states are, in fact, clamoring. And it’s because they realize 2014 is no longer far away.

Of course, when NCLB was first passed under Bush in 2002, it was easy to think, well, who really cares? It’s 12 years away and we don’t have to worry about that now.

And, in fact, when states were allowed to set the goals year by year, how — how many — what percentage of proficiency they will have every given year, they basically pushed off into the distant future when they would get anywhere near 100 percent proficiency.

Now we’re in 2011 — 2014 is not far away anymore. And so the realization is, yes, that’s a completely unrealistic goal, and we need to do something about that, or else what we will have is, we won’t have high standards.

GWEN IFILL: But the goal…

JUSTIN SNIDER: And there’s been…

GWEN IFILL: The goal — pardon me — was to increase high standards and to increase accountability. Secretary Duncan said today that there would still be accountability.

How do you know that, if you’re basically letting people off the hook with these waivers?

JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, one thing that the waiver will require states to do is to have high standards and to have assessments that measure whether students are actually meeting those standards.

So, for instance, last year, there was an attempt — and a successful attempt — to introduce something called the Common Core Standards. And over 40 states and Washington, D.C., have now adopted them. And they’re thought to be a lot higher than most states have previously had.

So take a state like Tennessee. In the past, when Tennessee was defining its own standards and saying what percentage of their students were proficient, they were reporting back in mathematics that 91 percent of their students were proficient. Well, you introduce higher standards, and, suddenly, that percentage drops to 34 percent.

And so it really makes you think, well, these students aren’t really any different. It’s the same students. They’re just — and they’re performing the same. It’s just how you’re defining proficiency.

And so we see, once you raise the bar, proficiency levels drop. And, therefore, the state superintendents of instruction are all very concerned about this.

GWEN IFILL: Justin Snider of The Hechinger Report, thank you so much.

JUSTIN SNIDER: Thank you.