By Kimberly S. Wetzel, Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/26/2008 05:17:19 PM PST
One of President-elect Barack Obama's big challenges next year will be to restructure the No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan effort launched six years ago as a way to improve America's struggling public schools.
But how and when the discussion will begin on the issue is up in the air, as Obama so far has provided skimpy details on his plans for it, and the economic crisis looks to dominate domestic policy for a while.
Still, educators and academics are eager to see how lawmakers will handle NCLB and change what many call a broken system that puts too much pressure on schools without funding to implement changes.
"No Child has helped to shine a spotlight on the problems facing the public schools; now we need a president and congress that can craft motivating remedies, supporting and not punishing local educators," said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley. "What's required is a careful rethinking how Washington can play a productive role, not a punitive one."
No Child Left Behind — signed by President George W. Bush in early 2002 — is a standardized-test system for tracking achievement. The law expired in 2007 and sits idle in Congress awaiting reauthorization.
Under the law, a minimum number of students must score proficient or better in math and reading on state standardized tests. Schools that do not have enough children who meet the benchmarks and other criteria are deemed in need of improvement and placed on state and federal watch lists. Schools and school districts that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" two years in a row can face sanctions such as having money withheld or be forced to restructure.
Many educators agree that NCLB is a good start to overhauling the system, but the law should be reshaped to give schools credit for improvement and be adequately funded. Others say the mandate, which also calls for all students in the United States to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, is unrealistic and sets schools up to fail.
"Pressure and humiliation are not successful strategies to use," said Nia Rashidchi, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the West Contra Costa school district, where some schools have been deemed in need of improvement. "When schools and school districts don't meet all the targets but have good growth, the focus is still, 'But you did not meet the targets.' That's not a good incentive for staffs to keep doing the hard work that they are doing."
Obama has remained somewhat vague about his plans to reform the law, other than to say that fixes need to be made. He often refers to the need for a "growth model" that will give schools credit for progress, and he has stressed increased funding for things such as teacher training.
"We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind," Obama said during a campaign rally in Ohio in September. "We must provide the funding we were promised and give our states the resources they need, and, finally, meet our commitment to special education."
When Obama might take up the issue is anyone's guess, however, as education was largely a back-burner issue in the election campaign, and Obama told CNN in late October that education was fifth among his priorities, behind the economy, energy independence, health-care and tax cuts for the middle class.
But educators and others say that America's students, continuously slipping further behind their peers in other countries, cannot wait for reform. The public largely agrees: a poll done by the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup in August showed that 67 percent of Americans think the law should be significantly changed or scrapped.
Congressman George Miller, D-Martinez, chairman of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee and one of the chief sponsors of NCLB, said he looks forward to discussing the matter with Obama. Miller hopes to incorporate teacher performance and school dropout rates, and he wants to take the pressure off schools by "making sure they can go into school improvement without turning it upside down."
Miller said he thinks that Obama — who has stated repeatedly that education is an issue close to his heart — will make NCLB a priority upon taking office in January.
"The bottom line is, everybody envisions pretty significant changes to No Child Left Behind," Miller said.
"We've learned a lot in the last five years, we've seen a lot of things that are working, and it's very, very exciting. I think that one thing President-elect Obama has made very clear is that education is very much a part of our economy, as is a bailout for Citicorp or the automobile companies. We cannot fall behind on education just because the economy is in a downturn."
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.