By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will ask Congress to toss out the two-tiered pass/fail school rating system of the No Child Left Behind education law and replace it with one that labels schools one of three ways: high-performing, needs improvement or chronically low-performing, according to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
President Obama announced the change Saturday during his weekly radio address, saying the administration plan sets "an ambitious goal: all students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career – no matter who you are or where you come from. Achieving this goal will be difficult. It will take time. And it will require the skills, talents, and dedication of many: principals, teachers, parents, students. But this effort is essential for our children and for our country."
In a briefing Friday, Duncan told reporters he will give the high performers both freedom and financial incentives to stay that way.
"We want to get out of their way," Duncan said. "But we also want to learn from them."
For the USA's lowest 5% of schools — about 5,000 — Duncan says he'll require them to take drastic steps to improve, including firing their principal and, in some cases, at least half of their staff, as happened last month at a Rhode Island high school.
That proposal could widen a rift between the administration and teachers' unions. After being briefed on the plan Friday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was "surprised and disappointed that the Obama administration proposed this as a starting point" for reauthorizing the basic law that guides federal education spending, saying teachers "should be empowered and supported — not scapegoated."
The blueprint is part of the administration's planned overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the most recent version of which was nicknamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by the Bush administration. The law, which seeks to use federal funding to push school improvements nationwide, mostly through annual testing in reading and math, is overdue for a reauthorization and Obama wants Congress to do it this year, with a handful of radical changes.
•require states to adopt "dramatically higher" academic standards by 2014;
•scrap NCLB's 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in basic math and reading and replace it with a 2020 "college- and career-ready" benchmark measured through annual tests. Students leaving high school would be expected to be ready for a career or college-level classwork, with younger students expected to master material leading to 12th grade ;
•allow schools to use subjects other than math and reading in their annual ratings;
•use "value-added" indicators to rate teachers and schools, tracking how much students learn throughout the school year under a given teacher;
•use indicators other than student test scores to rate teachers, such as principals' classroom observations and reviews of lesson plans.
In schools that rated consistently among the lowest 5%, states and school districts would be required to "do something every single year to fundamentally change outcomes for those children."
Duncan has already told states that in order to qualify for a host of federal grants, they must take one of four actions in their bottom-performing schools: Close them down altogether and move students to a new school; turn the existing school over to an outside management company or an authority to run them as charter schools; fire staff and rehire no more than 50% or bring in a new principal and plan to "transform" the school.
Duncan also said "leading indicators" like attendance and school climate should be considered in rating schools. Even though they may not pinpoint problems as explicitly as test scores, he said, they are often accurate signs of successful or struggling schools. "Sometimes test scores are lagging indicators," he said.
U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee and was one of the team of four lawmakers who shepherded NCLB through Congress in 2001, said on Friday that the blueprint circulated by Duncan "lays the right markers to help us reset the bar for our students and the nation."
More details are due to come soon, but Duncan also shared an outline of the proposal on Friday with education groups. Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students, applauded Duncan's "college- and career-ready" standards push.
"We think that getting all kids college-ready is absolutely the right aspiration," she said. "It's the right goal and it's absolutely achievable."
She said achieving the goal of 100% college readiness by 2020 would require "a profound transformation of the American education system" including reimagining curricula, textbooks and time spent in school, among other indicators. "It means big, big change," she said.
Weingarten wasn't as optimistic: "Despite some promising rhetoric, this blueprint places 100% of the responsibility on teachers and gives them 0% authority," she said. "For a law affecting millions of schoolchildren and their teachers, it just doesn't make sense to have teachers — and teachers alone — bear the responsibility for school and student success."
Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education think tank, applauded what he called the administration's call for "a humble federal role" in education, "targeted at the worst schools, rather than trying to solve every education problem from Washington." But he said many education reformers would dislike the narrower push to reform just the worst schools — an approach that might make it more palatable to congressional lawmakers, weary from NCLB's broad sanctions for thousands of "failing" schools.
Daniel Domenech, who heads the American Association of School Administrators, said he likes the outline he saw, calling it "more realistic, more valid and reliable" than NCLB. "It really makes us feel the urgency to have ESEA reauthorized, the sooner the better, so we can get out from under the restrictions of No Child Left Behind," he said, adding, "We're very encouraged by this proposal. This is a view at 50,000 feet and we like it — but the devil is in the details."
Carmel Martin, one of Duncan's top assistant secretaries, said the administration is looking for a new name to replace No Child Left Behind, but didn't include it in the proposal they're sending to Capitol Hill "We want to work with Congress on the actual bill and work with them on an appropriate new name," she said.