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Obama Administration Looks to Overhaul No Child Left Behind

March 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Obama administration rolls out its plan to revamp the No Child Left Behind Act this week, aiming to give schools more flexibility in how they evaluate students. Jeffrey Brown talks to two education policy experts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: The Obama administration spells out its plan for changing public education.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the federal law known as No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush eight years ago, it was heralded by both Republicans and Democrats.

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read. And every child must learn to add and subtract.

JEFFREY BROWN: No Child, one of the signature policies of the Bush administration, focused on standardized tests for reading and math, grade-level proficiency, and holding schools accountable for measurable yearly progress.

The strategy was credited early on with bringing new attention to boosting scores for minority and low-income students. But it also drew increasing criticism for forcing schools to — quote — “teach to the test,” narrowing the curriculum, and more.

MAN: You ever think the president would show up on the first day of school?

JEFFREY BROWN: This week, President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, rolled out their plan to reauthorize and rethink the law.

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. education secretary: We all recognize that NCLB had its flaws. The time to fix those problems is now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Duncan described some of those flaws on Capitol Hill today.

ARNE DUNCAN: There are far too many perverse incentives in the current law. It allows and it actually even encourages states to lower standards. It doesn’t measure growth. It doesn’t reward excellence. It prescribes the same interventions for schools with very, very different needs.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the nation’s 50 million public school students, Duncan said, the new plan represents a shift in emphasis.

ARNE DUNCAN: We’re calling for over $1 billion to fund a complete education, because a whole child will be a successful adult. We want schools invested in the arts, history, sciences, languages, physical education, and all the learning experiences that contribute to a well-rounded education.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under the plan, students will be tested in those other subjects, along with continued testing in math and science. But school districts would have greater flexibility in how they measure a student’s progress. The plan would also require schools to verify that all students are on a path toward — quote — “college and career readiness” by 2020.

And the nation’s 100,000 schools would be divided into categories, based on test results. Low-performing schools would require state intervention and could face strong penalties, including teacher firings and a complete shutdown.

Duncan said the administration hopes Congress will pass the measure this year.

And we sample two among many reactions to the president’s plan now, with Bob Wise, president of the policy group Alliance for Excellent Education — he served as the governor of West Virginia from 2001 to 2005 — and Diane Ravitch, an education historian, official in the Education Department of the first Bush administration, and author most recently of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

Bob Wise, starting with you, as a general matter first, does the approach of President Obama and Secretary Duncan make sense?

BOB WISE, president, Alliance for Excellent Education: It moves us towards the up — significant upgrade that is required of No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind, 10 years ago, almost, did some positive things, forced us to look at the standards that we were setting for our children to learn, forced us to use data in a significant way, and, for the first time, focused a clear eye on the achievement gaps of many of our students.

Now, having said that, it also has a number of shortcomings that increasingly have become revealed. It doesn’t provide the flexibility needed to deal with many of these situations. And, from my organization’s standpoint, it really didn’t deal with high schools. You have got a third of our kids dropping out of high school every year, and, yet, No Child Left Behind really had very limited ability and means to help that situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will come back to some of those details.

Diane Ravitch, first, as a general proposition, what do you make of the president’s plan?

DIANE RAVITCH, New York University: I think it’s an improvement over No Child Left Behind, which I believe was — in retrospect, has been a disaster.

But I don’t think that it’s gone far enough in separating itself from No Child Left Behind. It is very closely tied in many of its assumptions to No Child Left Behind. The — the strictures that will be applied to the lowest-performing schools are very punitive, and it really provides very little in the way of support for low-performing schools, only punishment.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were known, Ms. Ravitch, as a supporter early on of No Child Left Behind, have been speaking against it, and you just did so.

So, expand a little bit here about what — what — what did we — what did you learn along the way that made it not work and that needs to be addressed now?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, No Child Left Behind did encourage schools to teach to the test only the basic skills, and it created a disincentive for teaching about history and the arts and science and — and geography, civics, anything except the basic skills.

The actual improvement as a result of No Child Left Behind testing was very slight. And, in fact, there was much more progress made before No Child Left Behind was adopted than since it was enacted.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and, Bob Wise, I want to draw out a little bit more about what you see, the gains here from No Child Left Behind.

BOB WISE: Well, it’s very interesting. Dr. Ravitch and I come from different points of view, originally, because she was a proponent of No Child Left Behind, and I — actually, I was an opponent who, as a governor, seriously considered filing suit to enjoin it, decided not to, and am glad I did.

What No Child Left Behind did was, I think, to force us to come to grips with some things that we were able to ignore. But what it also did was to set up today’s discussion, which is critically important, because what it showed was, when you gave states the ability to — each state to set its own standard, we got, as we expected, 50 different sets of standards, and they’re moving in different directions.

And what — what — the states have actually come together, and 48 of them, at least, and said, no, what we need is a common set of standards. No Child Left Behind also didn’t provide enough tools, didn’t provide the flexibility to deal with a number of the situations, whether in — particularly in the low-performing schools.

I agree with Dr. Ravitch that there — there’s still some limitation in the president’s proposal. But I also want to say there are a lot more tools in the toolbox in the blueprint that’s been issued than previously existed under No Child Left Behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just stay with you on one area. I mean, one of the things, as we said in the setup, is there more focus here — or the emphasis is on what they are calling a complete education, that is, beyond math and science, for one thing, and more freedom for the school districts to measure what is progress.

Is that a good idea? Is that a good approach?

BOB WISE: I think it is.

And I think it’s also important is that the blueprint envisions, as I read it, that not just schools will be held accountable, that recognizing everybody needs to be in this pool. And, so, therefore, school districts and states will also be part of this, as opposed to simply honing in on the school and saying, you’re good or bad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Diane Ravitch, what — what do you see in terms of the more flexibility — it’s not completely clear how that works yet — but the idea of giving more flexibility to the school districts to measure the progress?

DIANE RAVITCH: I think that schools — schools that are doing a good job are that have high test scores in math and in reading, not math and science, in math and reading, because everyone will continue to be tested in basic skills.

In that sense, it’s still tied to No Child Left Behind. The higher-performing schools will be left alone, which will make a lot of people happy. But the lower-performing schools, particularly those in the bottom 5 percent, and then an additional 5 percent to 10 percent to 15 percent, are going to be very unhappy, because they’re going to worry about falling into that bottom 5 percent.

The punishments there are draconian. What they’re — what the federal government is saying is, the lowest-performing schools, regardless of the reasons for their low performance, will fire the principal, close the school, turn the school into a charter school, turn the school over to the state, turn it over to a private management organization.

All of these very punitive approaches have no basis in experience. There’s no district that’s done these things. We have no example for the state takeover that have produced a successful school. The charter schools range from excellent to absolutely awful, and, on average, are no better than regular public schools.

So, they — the federal law, as they’re proposing it, offers no remedies. It just offers punishments. And I think that they should be offering support and — and evaluate the specifics of each school. Why is the school low performing? It may be that the kids don’t speak English, and they need more help in learning to speak English, and not to have the principal fired, the staff laid off, and the school closed.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about this, Bob Wise, for the lower-performing schools, especially this emphasis on very strong measures that can be taken by the states? And, of course, the one that — the one that’s got a lot of attention is the firing of teachers. The president got into a little kerfuffle over this a few weeks ago.

BOB WISE: Well, first, let’s recognize that, when we’re talking about the 5 percent, the lowest-performing schools, this is a vast improvement over No Child Left Behind, which tended to take a blunderbuss and look at all schools.

The second is, even with these four measures that are referred to here, those are — those provide more flexibility than NCLB. And my guess is that, when we finish — when this all comes out, there will be more flexibility.

But I think it also ought to be pointed out that this blueprint envisions for other — these schools and others, following up on the Race to the Top proposal that’s in the stimulus package, in which you can also have innovation grants, you can have other measures that are positive in incentives.

So, yes, certainly, a lot to be discovered or a lot to be reviewed yet on the bottom 5 percent, but, as we work on that second 5 percent that Dr. Ravitch referred to, there’s a third category, the middle-performing schools, and then the top-performing schools, a lot more flexibility.

And a lot of — as no student comes to school the same, no two schools are the same. And this — and I believe that this blueprint at least starts us in the direction of recognizing those differences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your sense, though, is that the — striking the balance of carrot and stick is pretty close?

BOB WISE: I think it’s a lot more carrot than it used to be. And, in terms of high schools, where we work so much, with only 10 percent of Title I dollars going to high schools, what we found under No Child Left Behind is, there were effectively no carrots for high schools.

And we think that this proposal, where the dropout problem — with high school being the jumping-off spot for college or career, we think that this proposal far improves what is in or not in No Child Left Behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Diane Ravitch, some of the teachers unions came out very critical right off — right off the bat there.

Do you — is part of your critique supporting what they’re worried about, that — I think it was Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. She says, “It appears to place 100 percent responsibility on educators and give them zero percent authority.”

Is she right?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, I’m not sure if she’s right or not. What I do think, though, is that it will create a disincentive for anyone to want to teach in a low-performing school, because those schools will all be on the chopping block, and no good teacher is going to want to teach in a school that’s targeted for closure or for being turned into a privately managed school.

I think these are the all the wrong sticks. It’s nice to have carrots, but there are way too many sticks. And this is not the way to improve education, particularly when none of these measures have any track record of success.

JEFFREY BROWN: We — just in our last minute here, Bob Wise, I mean, you both know that there are many voices here. A lot of people are going to weigh in on this. What happens next? Is it possible to turn the system or change the system?

BOB WISE: Well, I think it essentially has to, because, if No Child Left Behind is permitted to exist after 2010, then what happens is, we keep the same law and we keep the same — what we all agree is a structure that significantly needs upgrading.

No Child Left Behind is a — is a compact disc in an iPod world. It significantly needs an upgrade. It has — and, if we don’t, then the initiatives, in which — some of which are very positive and provide carrots, such as in Race to the Top initiatives in — 40 states have now applied for some of these incentives — they will go away.

So, this is the only way that we can continue in a much more positive direction is by changing No Child Left Behind, reauthorization this new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and working on some of the issues that Dr. Ravitch and I have identified here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Bob Wise and Diane Ravitch, thank you both very much.

DIANE RAVITCH: Thank you.