The politics of a presidential election-year has blurred the reality that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed both houses of Congress in 2001 with overwhelming support from both Democrat and Republican Members. Super-heated political rhetoric has made the results-oriented revamping of federal education law into President Bush’s brainchild alone. Meanwhile, some media coverage of local grumbling over implementation has left the impression NCLB is in meltdown.
In recent weeks, two significant reports have clearly shown – contrary to the conventional wisdom – that strong bipartisan support continues to exist for NCLB, and in particular for one of its most vital components: the push to strengthen teacher quality.
A 19-member bipartisan commission headed by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former chairman of IBM, backed the NCLB requirement that all children have “highly qualified” teachers by 2006, and blasted states that are seeking escape routes instead of fundamentally reforming how teachers are trained, evaluated, and comp ensated. The Teaching Commission called for measures to open up teaching to those who can prove they know their subjects as opposed to simply showing they have amassed credits in process-heavy education courses. Furthermore, the Commission boldly urged that teachers receive substantial pay raises – merit pay – when they consistently bring about improved student achievement as shown by objective “value-added” assessment.
One of the most prominent members of the Gerstner Commission is Richard Riley, who was President Clinton’s Secretary of Education. Another prominent Democrat on the Commission is former North Carolina Governor James Hunt, who is the founding chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
In addition, the president of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union – Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – is a commission member and signed the unanimous report. That suggested a break from orthodoxy, given that teacher unions historically have bitterly opposed merit pay and instead have insisted on lockstep pay scales based on seniority and credits amassed in education courses. Later, Feldman issued a news release saying that while she did not agree with “some aspects” of the report, she concurred with “its thrust and direction.”
Meanwhile, The Renaissance Group, a consortium of universities that produce about 10 percent of America’s K-12 teachers, countered the chorus of criticism of NCLB coming from many teacher-trainers in the schools of education. With regard to NCLB’s expanding the definition of highly qualified to include those who can demonstrate competence without acquiring an education degree, the Renaissance Group said such competition should be welcomed:
“Some teacher preparation programs are so set on a certain methodology and sequence of courses that their proponents are not willing to look flexibly at people who come from different backgrounds,” states the Renaissance report, which was authored by Jack Miller, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin/Whitewater. “This is particularly vexing when the point of view is based more on defending curricular turf than on demonstrated effectiveness.”
Some of the loudest criticism of NCLB has centered on required testing of children in special education and those with limited English proficiency, and the counting of results in the adequate yearly progress schools must make to avoid federal sanctions. In response, the U.S. Department of Education has given states more flexibility in how they test those children. Department spokesmen have indicated much more flexibility is built into the 1,000-page law than is generally recognized.
Indeed, at least as far as teacher quality is concerned, the Gerstner Commission emphasizes that excessive flexibility may be a weakness, not a strong point, of NCLB. The report commended Congress and the White House for seeking through NCLB solid evidence that teachers possess content knowledge, and for encouraging alternatives to conventional teacher certification. But it lamented that NCLB gives states so much leeway in interpreting what “highly qualified” means that it leaves the door wide open for “continued low standards and lack of rigor.”
“Our methods of teacher preparation and licensure are often marked by low standards,” the Teaching Commission asserted, “while teacher induction is too haphazard to ensure that new teachers have the knowledge, skills, clinical experience, and support they need to succeed…Low, lockstep teacher pay undermines the prestige of the profession and the ability to renew and replenish the field. Cumbersome and constantly delayed school hiring practices in our largest cities scare off the best applicants….”
So despite the impression given in this year’s Democratic primaries, there are education reformers in both political parties who see real value in NCLB and who want to build on it, not tear it down.
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