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.

NCLB: ‘Getting in the Way of Where We Need to Go’

Secretary Duncan emphasized once again that we need to fix NCLB in real time, not Washington time.

The current law doesn’t reward schools that are making significant progress and prescribes interventions based on absolute test scores, the Secretary said last Friday at a lunchtime question and answer session during the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network annual conference.

Measuring growth and gains needs to be the focus of any accountability system, he said in response to a question from YEO Network member and Georgia State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan.

The Secretary explained that No Child Left Behind is an impediment which results in too many schools being labeled as failures, “and is getting in the way of where we need to go.”

In March of 2010, President Obama released the administration’s proposal to fix NCLB, and earlier this year he called on Congress to fix NCLB before the next school year begins. Click here to read A Blueprint for Reform.

It’s Time to Fix No Child Left Behind

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk with students and teachers at the Kenmore Middle School

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk with students and teachers at the Kenmore Middle School auditorium in Arlington, Va. March 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

“I want every child in this country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America’s priority. Let’s seize this education moment.  Let’s fix No Child Left Behind,” said President Obama earlier today at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia.  President Obama was joined by Secretary Duncan, teachers, representatives from major education associations, and Kenmore students.

In introducing President Obama, Secretary Duncan explained that, “While No Child Left Behind helped expand the standards and accountability movement, there is much that needs to be fixed.”

Many teachers complain bitterly about NCLB’s emphasis on testing. Principals hate being labeled as failures. Superintendents say it wasn’t adequately funded. And many parents just view it as a toxic brand that isn’t helping children learn.  We need to fix NCLB now. And it can’t wait.

During the speech, President Obama spoke directly to America’s teachers:

Now, I want to speak to teachers in particular here.  I’m not talking about more tests.  I’m not talking about teaching to the test.  We don’t need to know whether a student can fill out a bubble.  We do need to know whether they’re making progress.  We do need to know whether they’re not only mastering reading, math, and science, but also developing the kinds of skills, like critical thinking and creativity and collaboration that I just saw on display with the students that I met here.  Those are skills they’re going to need for the rest of their lives, not just to be good workers, but to be good citizens.

Now, that doesn’t mean testing is going to go away; there will be testing.  But the point is, is that we need to refine how we’re assessing progress so that we can have accountability without rigidity — accountability that still encourages creativity inside the classroom, and empowers teachers and students and administrators.

Read the White House blog post, and you can also read President Obama’s speech and Secretary Duncan’s speech.  The White House also released a fact sheet that lays out the President’s priorities for fixing NCLB.