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What should replace No Child Left Behind?

July 9, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
No Child Left Behind, an educational reform law with a controversial legacy, expired eight years ago and has yet to be replaced. This week, the Senate took up the first bipartisan effort to replace the law. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and former Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

GWEN IFILL: No Child Left Behind, the country’s most sweeping education law, has long been blamed for a rise in standardized testing and for unfairly labeling schools as failing.

This week, the Senate took up the first bipartisan effort to replace the law since it expired eight years ago. It would remove much of the federal footprint from education.

Hari Sreenivasan has the details.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Instead of federal rules for grading and punishing schools, the Senate legislation would let states design their own accountability systems. But serious disagreements remain.

The White House is calling for rules that tell states when to intervene in low-performing schools. And some Republicans want federal funds for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice.

Here to look at what this could mean for schools are Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. And Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

So, Rick, I want to start with you first.

All schools were supposed to be at this place where kids were learning at grade level by last year. We didn’t get there. How does this piece of legislation think it can fix that?

RICK HESS, American Enterprise Institute: It turns out that when you pass a law like No Child Left Behind back in 2001 that says 100 percent of children will be proficient in reading and math by 2014, the fact that Congress would like it to be so doesn’t make it so.

And I think that’s the big lesson here. No Child Left Behind really did two things around accountability. One is, it created enormous — made an enormous contribution, because for the first time we had real comparable data on every child in every state on how they were doing in reading and math grades three to eight, again in high school and science at elementary, middle and high school.

What No Child Left Behind got wrong was, in their desire to make a difference, Congress wrote this convoluted, problematic, overreaching accountability system, which tried to tell states how to decide which schools were doing well or not and how to intervene in those schools.

Turns out, Congress is actually horribly configured to do this. And what you wound up creating was a lot of test mania, a lot of compliance, and very little that actually contributed in any way to helping kids get better.

What I think you see in the laws, in the proposals right now that just passed the House and that is getting debated in the Senate is an effort to keep the part of No Child Left Behind that worked well, this transparency and this regular assessment, but to get the federal government out of that micromanagement business.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Bob Wise, you have been a governor before. Will replacing federal guidelines with state guidelines fix the problem, especially for those parents out there who are seriously complaining about testing and the culture that it’s created?

BOB WISE, President, Alliance for Excellent Education: So what we have, I think, is a legislative Goldilocks right now.

Rick is absolutely right. I agree with him that the early No Child Left — No Child Left Behind was too prescriptive, too hot. But at the same token, the House version particularly removes any kind of meaningful accountability.

And so what you need is, you need the ability to report on students that are having low outcomes, measure them over a period of time, and then for the federal government to say to states, look, you have got to do something. We’re not telling you what.

That’s what they tried to do in No Child Left Behind. We’re not telling you what, but we are saying that you do need to act and there is a federal role in helping support that. So that’s where I think we still have to get it right in terms of where the Senate bill is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rick, if the federal government says that you can create your own measurements of success and failure, do we basically go to a pre-No Child Left Behind era, where we have 50 sets of measurements in different states?

FREDERICK HESS: Well, basically, with No Child Left Behind, we have actually had 50 sets of measurements from 50 states, because each state gets to choose its standards and its tests.

So what you have are data that are comparable for every child in a state, but not necessarily across states. That doesn’t change under the laws being debated. What you really go back to — I describe it as a long way home. What you go back to is what Bill Clinton actually proposed in 1994, which was he said, look, let’s have every state test every child once in elementary school in reading and math, once in middle school, once in high school, and let’s make sure that data is out there, so that parents and policy-makers and educators and voters can make informed decisions.

What we’re going to wind up with under, say, a House bill is what Clinton imposed in ’94 on steroids. You actually have tests every grade level from three to eight in reading and math, again in high school, and then science elementary, middle and high school

What it does, is, unlike pre-NCLB, it makes sure that folks can’t hide problems. You’re going to break out data for all these different subgroups by economic status and by ethnicity. And what you’re going to have, what’s going to be different from under No Child Left Behind is the federal government will not be in the business of deciding which schools need to be intervened in and how you’re supposed to intervene in them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Bob Wise, one of the questions and one of the points of contention between the House and the Senate bills is this idea that the dollars should follow low-income kids if they choose to leave a low-performing school and go either to a better-performing school, which I guess is the goal. But how much money are we talking about? How significance is this and what’s the impact on the states?

BOB WISE: The impact on the states can be great, and I think it’s significant.

We’re talking roughly $14 billion to $15 billion in Title I. And those are the dollars that go to concentrations of low-income children. But I think it’s significant to note that the Senate rejected that approach, even when offered by the Republican chairman. In the House, I don’t believe — either they didn’t take it up or they rejected it as well.

But I think that what Rick talks about is important to note. Yes, there’s going to be more flexibility, regardless of what version passes. But I’m concerned that I don’t want to see the Bill Clinton 1994 approach — he says on steroids — I don’t want to see it run amok.

If you have got 1,200 high schools that are graduating — or where more than one-third of their kids drop out, I think it’s fair for the federal government to say, why do you have these high dropout rates? We’re not telling you how to fix it, but after this has happened for several years, what are you going to do to fix it and what are the tools you need to fix it?

That I think is the key debate that is still taking place, particularly on the Senate side.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rick, is this legislation essentially reflecting this kind of popular uprising against the Common Core?

FREDERICK HESS: No, I think it’s more accurate to say the Common Core got caught up in the frustration of No Child Left Behind.

I think you have got parents who feel like their children are being overtested. It’s not so much the federally mandated tests under No Child Left Behind. It’s more all of the urgency put behind getting kids to make sure they’re proficient on those tests, which has led school districts to do lots of formative assessment, to make sure kids are ready for the tests, lots of test preparation.

The idea is, by keeping the transparency, but by loosening the terror of being on the federal government black hat list, that what’s going to happen is school districts will be able to be more sensible and measured about these tests.

And I think what is going to happen is on debates around testing, around evaluation of teachers, around standards and Common Core, you would actually see a lessening of some of the temperature, because people are going to feel that the stakes have been reduced to a more moderate range.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bob Wise, a quick last word?

BOB WISE: Yes, Rick, I think, has summed up well a lot of the situation.

I just want to add that let’s also remember that it was the states, whether they adopted the Common Core or they adopted their own college and career ready standards, every state has now moved to a college and career ready standard. We want to make sure that the federal government is supporting that state initiative.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Bob Wise and Rick Hess, thanks so much for joining us.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.