February 1, 2010
Obama to Seek Sweeping Change in ‘No Child’ Law
By SAM DILLON
The Obama administration is proposing a sweeping overhaul of President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, and will call for broad changes in how schools are judged to be succeeding or failing, as well as for the elimination of the law’s 2014 deadline for bringing every American child to academic proficiency.
Educators who have been briefed by administration officials said the proposals for changes in the main law governing the federal role in public schools would eliminate or rework many of the provisions that teachers’ unions, associations of principals, school boards and other groups have found most objectionable.
Yet the administration is not planning to abandon the law’s commitments to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and to encouraging teacher quality.
Significantly, said those who have been briefed, the White House wants to change federal financing formulas so that a portion of the money is awarded based on academic progress, rather than by formulas that apportion money to districts according to their numbers of students, especially poor students. The well-worn formulas for distributing tens of billions of dollars in federal aid have, for decades, been a mainstay of the annual budgeting process in the nation’s 14,000 school districts.
Peter Cunningham, a Department of Education spokesman, acknowledged that the administration was planning to ask Congress for broad changes to the education law, but declined to describe the changes specifically.
He said that although the administration had developed various proposals, it would solicit input from Congressional leaders of both parties in coming weeks to create legislative language that can attract bipartisan support. Some details of the president’s proposals are expected to be made public on Monday, when the president outlines his $3.8 trillion budget for the 2011 fiscal year.
The changes would have to be approved by Congress, which has been at a stalemate for years over how to change the policy.
Currently the education law requires the nation’s 98,000 public schools to make “adequate yearly progress” as measured by student test scores. Schools that miss their targets in reading and math must offer students the opportunity to transfer to other schools and free after-school tutoring. Schools that repeatedly miss targets face harsher sanctions, which can include staff dismissals and closings. All students are required to be proficient by 2014.
Educators have complained loudly in the eight years since the law was signed that it was branding tens of thousands of schools as failing but not forcing them to change.
The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, foreshadowed the elimination of the 2014 deadline in a September speech, referring to it as a “utopian goal,” and administration officials have since made clear that they want the deadline eliminated. In recent meetings with representatives of education groups, Department of Education officials have said they also want to eliminate the school ratings system built on making “adequate yearly progress” on student test scores.
“They were very clear with us that they would change the metric, dropping adequate yearly progress and basing a new system on another picture of performance based on judging schools in a more nuanced way,” said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, who attended one of the meetings.
The current system issues the equivalent of a pass-fail report card for every school each year, an evaluation that administration officials say fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.
Instead, under the administration’s proposals, a new accountability system would divide schools into more categories, offering recognition to those that are succeeding and providing large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools.
A new goal, which would replace the 2014 universal proficiency deadline, would be for all students to leave high school “college or career ready.” Currently more than 40 states are collaborating, in an effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and encouraged by the administration, to write common standards defining what it means to be a graduate from high school ready for college or a career.
The new standards will also define what students need to learn in earlier grades to advance successfully toward high school graduation.
The administration has already made its mark on education through Race to the Top, a federal grant program in which 40 states are competing for $4 billion in education money included in last year’s federal stimulus bill. In his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama hailed the results so far of that competition, which has persuaded states from Rhode Island to California to make changes in their education laws. States that prohibit the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, for example, are not eligible for the funds. The competition has also encouraged states to open the door to more charter schools, which receive public money but are run by independent groups.
Now the administration hopes to apply similar conditions to the distribution of the billions of dollars that the Department of Education hands out to states and districts as part of its annual budget.
“They want to recast the law so that it is as close to Race to the Top as they can get it, making the money conditional on districts’ taking action to improve schools,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, who attended a recent meeting at which administration officials outlined their plans in broad strokes. “Right now most federal money goes out in formulas, so schools know how much they’ll get, and then use it to provide services for poor children. The department thinks that’s become too much of an entitlement. They want to upend that scheme by making states and districts pledge to take actions the administration considers reform, before they get the money.”
One section of the current Bush-era law has required states to certify that all teachers are highly qualified, based on their college coursework and state-issued credentials. In the Race to the Top competition, the administration has required participating states to develop the capability to evaluate teachers based on student test data, at least in part, and on whether teachers are successful in raising student achievement.
Educators who have talked to the administration said the officials appeared to be considering inserting similar provisions into the main education law, by requiring the use of student data in teacher evaluation systems as a condition for receiving federal education money. Mr. Duncan has publicly endorsed such an approach, Mr. Cunningham said.
The education law has been praised for focusing attention on achievement gaps, but it has also generated tremendous opposition, especially from educators, who contend that it sets impossible goals for students and schools and humiliates students and educators when they fall short. The law has, to date, labeled some 30,000 schools as “in need of improvement,” a euphemism for failing, but states and districts have done little to change them.
The last serious attempt to rewrite the law was in 2007. That effort collapsed, partly because teachers’ unions and other educator groups opposed an effort to incorporate merit pay provisions into a rewritten law. Earlier this month, Mr. Duncan and more than a dozen other administration officials took steps toward organizing a new rewrite, meeting with the Democratic chairmen and ranking Republican members of the education committees in both houses of Congress.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company