After 10 Years, It’s Time for a New NCLB

The following op-ed appeared in the January 8, 2012 edition of the Washington Post.

Ten years ago today, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law has improved American education in some ways, but it also still has flaws that need to be fixed.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the first time exposed achievement gaps and created a conversation about how to close them. The law has held schools accountable for the performance of all students no matter their race, income level, English-proficiency or disability. Schools can no longer point to average scores while hiding an achievement gap that is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

But NCLB has significant flaws. It created an artificial goal of proficiency that encouraged states to set low standards to make it easier for students to meet the goal. The act’s emphasis on test scores as the primary measure of school performance has narrowed the curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all accountability system has mislabeled schools as failures even if their students are demonstrating real academic growth. The law is overly prescriptive and doesn’t allow districts to create improvement plans based on their unique needs. It also has not supported states as they create teacher evaluation systems that use multiple measures to identify highly effective teachers and support the instructional improvement of all teachers.

The question today is how to build on NCLB’s success and fix its problems. Fortunately, states are leading the way. In Washington, we need to do everything we can to support their work.

Over the past two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have shown tremendous courage by raising their academic standards to measure whether students are truly prepared for success in college and careers. To measure students’ progress toward those standards, 44 states and the District are working together to create assessments based on the common set of standards developed by educators, governors and state education chiefs. What’s more, states and school districts have adopted bold and comprehensive reforms to support academic achievement for all students. These reforms are improving teacher and principal evaluation and support, as well as turning around low-performing schools and expanding access to high-quality schools.

Unfortunately, the law is unintentionally creating barriers for these reforms. States that have chosen to raise standards will soon need to explain why student scores are dropping. Instead, they should be able to highlight students’ academic growth. School districts are stuck using NCLB’s definition of a highly qualified teacher based solely on paper credentials, without taking into account the teacher’s ability to improve student learning. And the law continues to encourage schools to narrow curriculum at the expense of important subjects such as history, civics, science, the arts and physical education. After 10 years of these flawed policies, our nation’s teachers and students deserve better.

President Obama is offering states flexibility from NCLB in exchange for comprehensive plans to raise standards; to create fair, flexible and focused accountability systems; and to improve systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support. This flexibility will not give states a pass on accountability. It will demand real reform.

So far, 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have expressed interest in this flexibility. The Education Department is working with the first group of applicants.

Although Congress has begun the process of reauthorizing NCLB, we can’t wait for the extended legislative process to be completed. States and school districts need relief from NCLB right now.

Congress has yet to act even though No Child Left Behind is four years overdue for renewal. Education reform requires elected officials from both sides of the aisle to come together. We can’t let partisan politics stand in the way.

One way or another, NCLB needs significant changes. Our states and schools deserve flexibility from its teach-to-the-test culture and one-size-fits-all accountability system.

Even as we work with states to offer flexibility from existing law, the Obama administration will support a bipartisan effort by Congress to create a law that supports a well-rounded education while holding schools, districts and states accountable for results.

We all need to work together so that 10 years from now, America’s children will have the sort of federal education law they so richly deserve — one that challenges them to achieve to high standards, and provides them with the highly effective teachers and principals who can prepare them for success in college and the workforce.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Education Community Weighs In on NCLB Flexibility

“This isn’t just the right thing to do for our kids -– it’s the right thing to do for our country,” said President Obama earlier today when he announced details on how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act- or No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

President Obama Greets Students

President Barack Obama greets Keiry Herrera, a sixth grade student at Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., following remarks on the need to provide states with relief from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“We can’t afford to wait for an education system that is not doing everything it needs to do for our kids,” the President said. “We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it, and replace it with something that does. We’ve got to act now.”

The education community has been weighing in on the President’s announcement, and here is a sample of what they’re saying:

National PTA: “National PTA believes this package promotes true partnership and collaborative decision-making in education reform; encouraging states and districts to engage with all stakeholders, including parents, in developing state plans and turning around failing schools.”

The Education Trust: “This plan strikes a new balance between the federal and state roles in educating our nation’s children. It does not prescribe particular systems or interventions for the vast majority of schools, instead setting strong goals for states and giving them the flexibility to determine how their schools and districts will meet them.”

National Association of Secondary School Principals: “Principal evaluation has been a front-burner topic for the past several months, and we thank the administration for promoting a model of principal evaluation that incorporates multiple measures and is developed with input from principals.”

NEA: “President Obama has taken a welcome step forward with this plan.  It sets much more realistic goals for schools, while maintaining ESEA’s original commitment to civil rights, high academic standards and success for every student,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

Council of Great City Schools: “The Council of the Great City Schools, the nation’s primary coalition of large urban school districts, announced its support for President Obama’s proposal to waive various provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind program in exchange for an array of school reforms.”

National Association of State Boards of Education: “We want to thank the Administration for recognizing the hard work that states do under the leadership of their respective state boards of education to help make students college- and career-ready,” NASBE Executive Director Brenda Welburn said. “The law passed 10 years ago no longer reflects the progress states have made preparing America’s students for life beyond high school. It is simply unrealistic and unrelated to the work of states today.”

Council of Chief State School Officers: “The one-size-fits-all approach of our current system has become a barrier to state-level progress. We believe that the best way to move forward is for Congress to reauthorize ESEA. In the absence of congressional action, this waiver package will provide states with the authority to continue leading in accountability and education reform, and we look forward to working with our counterparts at the federal level to make sure that all children graduate from high school prepared to succeed in their future endeavors.”

Chiefs for Change: “We applaud both the flexibility waivers will grant states and districts and the reforms the Administration’s waiver policy will reward. We appreciate the Administration’s flexibility for data collection, rewarding progress, and supporting teacher effectiveness polices. Waivers like the ones the Administration laid out today – which do not weaken the rigor or accountability in No Child Left Behind – will help states improve student achievement.”

National School Boards Association: “The proposed NCLB regulatory relief plan is a positive step as it could provide much needed assistance to local school district efforts to improve student achievement.”

Association of School Business Officials International: “We are encouraged and appreciate President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s insight into some of the deficiencies of NCLB,” said John Musso, Executive Director for ASBO International. “The proposed plan allows for more state and local control without compromising some of ESEA’s commitments, including setting high academic standards and an expectation of success for every student.”

Read What NCLB Flexibility Means for You

What NCLB Flexibility Means for You

Earlier today President Obama provided details on how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act- or No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The new flexibility supports local and state education reform across the country in exchange for serious state-led efforts to close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.

Here’s how flexibility may affect you:

For Teachers:

ESEA flexibility will move accountability systems toward decisions that are based on student growth and progress. They will consider more than a single test score measured against an arbitrary proficiency level.  States will be able to look comprehensively at how schools are serving their students and communities, in areas like school climate, access to rigorous coursework, and providing a well-rounded education.

Flexibility also will support States and districts in fixing the broken teacher evaluation systems, by allowing for the use of multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including peer reviews, principal observation, portfolios, and student work.

For Parents:

ESEA Flexibility will let States create honest accountability and support systems that require real change in the worst performing schools, allow for locally tailored solutions based on individual school needs, and recognize schools for success. When schools fall short, parents will know that school leaders will adopt targeted and focused strategies for the students most at risk.

The accountability system also will end the over-emphasis on testing. Parents will like this change for the same reasons that teachers will – it will promote a well-rounded curriculum while giving a fair and responsible assessment of their school’s success in preparing students for college and careers.

For Students:

Under ESEA flexibility, States will begin to move beyond the bubble tests and dumbed-down standards that are based on arbitrary standards of proficiency. By measuring student growth and critical thinking, new assessments will inspire better teaching and greater student engagement across a well-rounded curriculum. By setting standards based on college- and career-readiness, States will challenge students to make progress toward a goal that will prepare them for success in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Click here to download our FAQ about ESEA flexibility (MS Word), and for more detailed information visit ed.gov/esea/flexibility.

Obama Administration Offers Flexibility from No Child Left Behind

Today, the Obama Administration outlined how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – in exchange for serious state-led efforts to close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.

Get the Facts:

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Top 5 Questions About NCLB Flexibility

“We’re still hopeful that Congress can continue its work this fall. In the meantime, states and districts have an opportunity to move forward,” said Secretary Duncan in a statement earlier today announcing the Obama Administration’s plan to provide a process for states to receive flexibility under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.  While more details on the flexibility plan are forthcoming, here is a list of the top five questions about the announcement we are hearing.

1. Why now?

Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is four years late. The Obama administration introduced its Blueprint for Reform sixteen months ago, and President Obama called on Congress in March to finish a bill before the start of the new school year. States, districts, schools and most importantly students cannot wait another school year for this broken law to be fixed.

2. Does the administration’s plan replace Congressional reauthorization?

No, the plan to provide flexibility does not replace a comprehensive reauthorization from Congress. The administration’s plan will provide flexibility to districts and schools to improve student achievement by raising standards while Congress continues to work on reauthorization.

3. Does this regulatory flexibility package offer blanket flexibility to states and districts?

While all states will be eligible for this regulatory flexibility, only states that agree to meet a high bar will receive the flexibility they need to improve education on the ground for students. States granted flexibility would be expected to maintain rigorous accountability, including for subgroups of students.

4. Is there legal authority for the Department to allow this flexibility?

Section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act) allows the Secretary to waive certain statutory or regulatory requirements of the ESEA.

5. When will this flexibility have an impact on the ground?

We will continue to gather ideas from states in the coming month and plan to roll out details of the package in mid-September. We anticipate that this flexibility will begin to have an impact at the end of the 2011-2012 school year and have the most significant impact beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.

 

A Teacher’s Agreement and Frustration at the Save Our Schools Rally

At the SOS rally with other teachers at the ellipse in front of the White House this weekend, I wrestled with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, signs everywhere testified to our universal frustration with the failed policies of NCLB and to damaging cuts to education:  Education Cuts Never Heal . . . Education is Not Just for the Rich & White . . . No Teacher Supports the Status Quo . . . Education is Not Test Prep . . . Build Schools, Not Bombs.

I came to ED one year ago as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and have extended my position for one additional year. I share teachers’ concerns expressed at the rally. But, unlike them, I have witnessed Arne Duncan’s team working tirelessly to fix these very problems and overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act. President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform would dramatically reduce the number of schools labeled as failing for not making AYP so that only the bottom five percent would be identified, and those schools would receive considerable support to turn around. It would end the flawed practice of requiring students to reach an arbitrary bar on a poor proficiency test and ask states to focus on each student’s growth instead. It would provide incentives for programs to support teachers’ professional learning and use multiple measures to evaluate them, not only student growth scores. It would encourage states to expand their curricula to include the arts, history, and others neglected under NCLB. And the plan would support the states in their efforts to create better tests that cover critical thinking and really show what students know and can do.

And this is the source of my frustration:  that the teachers at the rally seemed unaware that the administration is with them on so many of the issues they care about. Since he took office, Arne Duncan has been calling for ESEA to be reauthorized so that we can fix the very problems that plague our schools, handcuff teachers, and handicap students. He talks with teachers continually and listens to their concerns. Secretary Duncan is working hard with Congress to pass a bill. If Congress fails to act before the beginning of the school year, he will consider offering regulatory flexibility to help alleviate the burdens of NCLB.

The Arne Duncan who I know developed a passion for education while his mom tutored students in her inner city Chicago Sunday school class who couldn’t read. He worked with her to help these kids, and since then he has built a career focused on educational equity, on ensuring that students do not to become victims of their zip code. He believes the fight for education is a fight for social justice.

At the rally, however, teachers clearly were angry at Arne Duncan for the law that he did not create and that he does not support.  Instead of blaming him, teachers and policymakers need to work together as a team to fix a law that we all agree is broken.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a teacher liaison on loan from Buncombe County Schools in N.C. and working temporarily at the Department of Education.

View A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind

School Days Highlights June at ED

This week, the U.S. Department of Education introduces School Days, a quick and casual look back at what went on at ED in the previous month.   The video journal covers a dozen large and small events featuring Secretary Arne Duncan and other ED staff, all in just a few minutes.

School Days’ first installment features Arne announcing the Administration’s plan to provide regulatory flexibility around No Child Left Behind (NCLB) if Congress does not complete work on a reauthorization bill before the August recess; the 2011 Presidential Scholars’ visit to Washington;  a farewell to the this year’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows; a graduation ceremony for the Project Search program for  high schools students with disabilities; and more.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Duncan and DC Students Talk on NPR

Secretary Duncan at NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

In an interview earlier this week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Arne Duncan discussed plans to provide regulatory flexibility to states seeking relief from the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) in exchange for enacting educational reforms.

Secretary Duncan Takes Questions on NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

During the live broadcast, the Secretary explained to students in the audience and to host Neal Conan, that doing nothing is not acceptable, and that “where states are raising the bar, where they’re doing the right thing by children, we need to provide them greater flexibility, and we need to meet them half way.”

The Secretary said the best way to fix NCLB’s problems is for Congress to reauthorize NCLB. Yet, with the new school year just months away, the Department of Education is considering ways to provide flexibility for states and districts.

For most of the interview, Duncan took questions from District of Columbia students about Duncan’s support for arts education, his perspective on why teaching quality varies so widely, and his opinion about lengthening the school day. Duncan also answered questions from listeners around the country, including questions regarding how to best serve students with disabilities and over-use of standardized testing.

Listen to the  44-minute interview.

Read the transcript.

 

Duncan: “Fix No Child Left Behind – Now”

Another school year is coming to a close, and schools across the country are still operating under the restrictive rules of No Child Left Behind. Unless the law is changed, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be mislabeled as failing. This will trigger impractical and ineffective sanctions. It’s confusing to students and parents and demoralizing for teachers and principals.

The Obama Administration continues to work closely with Congress to reauthorize NCLB, but with the new school year just months away, ED is beginning to investigate how to address NCLB’s problems through regulatory flexibility, if necessary.

Secretary Duncan said that regulatory flexibility will not replace comprehensive reform, or give states and districts a pass from accountability. Instead, the goal is to “unleash energy at the local level even as Congress works to rewrite the law, giving states, districts and schools the flexibility they need to raise standards, boost quality, and improve our lowest-performing schools.”

In today’s Politico, Secretary Duncan penned an op-ed explaining the importance of reauthorizing NCLB:

Everyone responsible for educating children for the knowledge economy of the 21st century agrees that America’s federal education law is in dire need of reform. Teachers, parents, school leaders, governors, members of Congress and the Education Department have all called for an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

I commend Congress for the hard work under way on reauthorizing NCLB, now known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers. Senate and House leaders should continue their work toward a bipartisan reauthorization bill by the start of the school year. While we don’t expect agreement on all of the details, there is real goodwill and support for reauthorizing ESEA and virtually no one — inside or outside government — is defending the status quo.

I remain hopeful and confident that Congress will soon take action to strengthen and upgrade the nation’s education law. But while Congress works, state and local school districts are buckling under the law’s goals and mandates. Despite our shared sentiment for reform and the Obama administration’s long-standing proposal to reshape NCLB, the law remains in place, four years after it was due for reauthorization. Our children get only one shot at an education. They cannot wait any longer for reform.

For this reason, our administration will develop a plan that trades regulatory flexibility for reform. If Congress does not complete work on reauthorization soon, we will be prepared with a process that will enable schools to move ahead with reform in the fall. States, districts and schools need the freedom to implement high standards, strengthen the quality of their teachers and school leaders and embrace a more flexible, fair and focused system of accountability. Many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have voiced support for these nonpartisan goals.

The stakes are high. As it currently exists, NCLB is creating a slow-motion educational train wreck for children, parents and teachers. Under the law, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be labeled as “failing,” eventually triggering impractical and ineffective sanctions.

To avoid these sanctions, many states have lowered academic standards instead of making them more rigorous. The law also makes no distinction between a high-performing school with one or two subgroups underperforming and a low-performing school where everyone is struggling. As a result, states and districts are spending billions of dollars each year on one-size-fits-all mandates dictated from Washington rather than on locally tailored solutions that effectively reach the students most at risk and close achievement gaps.

Under the umbrella of the Learning First Alliance, 16 national organizations representing tens of thousands of local administrators and school board members as well as millions of teachers are seeking flexibility from NCLB’s deadlines and mandates. Separately, a number of state education chiefs have echoed the call for flexibility tied to education reform.

Louisiana, for example, is seeking flexibility to put in place a comprehensive reform plan, as is Tennessee, a winner of the administration’s key reform program, Race to the Top. Nine other states are seeking flexibility from the law, while others have threatened to simply ignore the NCLB deadlines.

Meanwhile, many states are moving forward with reform, voluntarily adopting higher standards and collaborating on a new generation of assessments. They are developing new systems of evaluating and supporting teachers, building comprehensive data systems to improve teaching and to track student gains and transforming chronically low-performing schools — including the high schools that produce a disproportionate share of America’s dropouts.

The purpose of our administration’s plan is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability but, rather, to unleash energy for reform at the local level even as Congress works to rewrite the law. It’s a meaningful step to help educators, parents and community leaders transition from today’s stifling, top-down approach toward a climate of locally designed innovation and excellence.

Fifteen months have passed since the administration unveiled its blueprint to reform NCLB. On two separate occasions, President Barack Obama has convened House and Senate leaders at the White House to help spur action. I’ve held countless bipartisan meetings across Capitol Hill. The president reissued the call for reform in March.

More and more people recognize education is the game-changer in the global economy. A world-class education system is the engine of economic growth, innovation, competitiveness and job creation. Our children, our teachers and our parents deserve a world-class education — not some day, but today.

Now’s the Time to Act on NCLB


Fixing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “can’t be done in Washington time. It has to be in real people’s time,” said Secretary Duncan on Tuesday at Dayton’s Bluff Achievement Plus elementary school in St. Paul, Minn.

Duncan, joined at the school by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), was responding to a growing chorus of voices saying that NCLB should be fixed before the start of the upcoming school year. “We need Congress to work with a much greater sense of urgency,” the Secretary noted.

Duncan explained that NCLB is too punitive as well as too loose on goals and too tight on how schools can succeed. The Secretary repeated that the reauthorized law should allow creativity to flourish at the local level. “We won’t dictate curriculum from Washington,” he said. “We need to get out of the way.”

For more information on the Obama Administration’s proposal to fix NCLB, which is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, read “A Blueprint for Reform” which President Obama released in March of 2010.