A proposal by Senators Judd Gregg and Richard Burr seeks to renew the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) with a number of timely and useful changes. What makes theirs unique among the various alternatives being discussed to the landmark federal education law is that it would not water down its historic accountability requirements, or compromise the options it provides for children in chronically underperforming schools.
Its changes amount to more than just fine tuning: they would make a substantial, immediate difference for many states, and especially those willing to work with the law to make some required improvements to current systems.
It endorses expanding the use of “growth models” for tracking student progress, developed by Secretary of Education Spellings and her team. Broader use of state growth models would be allowed so long as they comply with federal requirements for quality of results and data.
Another important feature of their plan is to refocus a federal emphasis on improving those public schools that year after year produce the lowest test scores. It proposes straightforward measures intended to bolster the options available to students who attend those schools.
The Senators also address the two aspects of NCLB Members of Congress often report hearing the most complaints about: its testing requirements for English learners and students diagnosed with disabilities. The Burr-Gregg plan includes added testing flexibility for the latter group.
It also includes a number of important improvements regarding English learners. It proposes amending the accountability system to recognize that schools should be rewarded, not penalized, for succeeding in teaching these students enough English skills that they can be reclassified as English proficient. It also extends special flexibility for refugees and new arrivals – a necessary measure because federal refugee policies often encourage resettlement in particular areas, and education laws should not handicap schools in those locations.
“An awful lot of responsibility and blame has been offloaded onto these children as to why [their schools did not make Adequate Yearly Progress], but it doesn’t hold up under the data,” House Education Committee Chairman George Miller told a 2006 hearing about English learners. The danger of relaxing accountability requirements for just these students is that schools would then have significant incentives for segregating them in bilingual education programs and leaving them there, without ever raising their English, or other academic skills, to basic proficiency.
Some critics of the current law have argued that states are beginning to lower their academic content standards as a result of the current law. The Burr-Gregg proposal would add needed visibility to the largely opaque process by which states revise and obtain federal approval for their compliance plans. Doing so would also tighten the federal Department of Education’s license to issue waivers, extensions and sliding deadlines, which have become tacit mainstays of federal NCLB oversight.
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