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Published in Print: April 19, 2006, as NCLB Commission Starts Gathering Testimony

NCLB Commission Starts Gathering Testimony

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Having all the nation’s teachers meet the definition of being “highly qualified” is an admirable goal, but the No Child Left Behind Act’s current teacher-quality provisions make it hard to retain well-trained teachers, especially in schools serving poor and minority children, witnesses said last week in California at the first hearing called by an independent panel working to improve the law.

“This isn’t about money, this is about how we treat the people who do the work,” said Don Iglesias, the superintendent of the 32,000-student San Jose Unified School District. Teachers are working hard, he added during the hearing that was also webcast, but especially in low-performing schools, they are not receiving recognition for their efforts to improve performance.

Those thoughts were echoed by Pixie Hayward-Schickele, a 2nd grade teacher from the 35,000-student West Contra Costa Unified district and the chairwoman of the California Teachers Association’s working group on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. She testified that the No Child Left Behind law, the 4-year-old overhaul of the ESEA, has taken the joy out of teaching with its emphasis on reading and math and its testing mandates.

“We are shortchanging the children most in need of a broad educational opportunity,” she charged.

Calls for Flexibility

Last week’s event—at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona—was the first in a series of five hearings to be held by the Commission on No Child Left Behind. Co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson and former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, the bipartisan commission is analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the federal law, which is due to come up for reauthorization next year.

The panel, which includes 13 other members from the fields of education, business, and civil rights, will make recommendations on how to improve the law and on its impact on closing various achievement gaps.

At the gathering, Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, said the commission was still in the information-gathering phase and didn’t have any preconceived conclusions about recommendations.

Housed at the Washington-based Aspen Institute, the commission is supported by several private philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The first hearing focused on the law’s effects on teacher quality, recruitment, and retention—a timely topic, because all teachers are required to meet the definition of “highly qualified” by the end of this school year.

The discussion also focused on how poor and minority children are often taught by inexperienced teachers who don’t have the skills necessary to raise achievement.

Gavin Payne, the chief deputy superintendent for the California education department, told the commissioners that although the state has made progress in meeting the teacher-quality requirements under the law, it won’t be able to meet the goal if hiring incentives—such as college-loan forgiveness and “signing” bonuses—aren’t provided at the local, state, and federal levels.

“If Congress and the federal government want better results, they must be willing to pay for their expectations,” Mr. Payne said.

He also recommended that the federal government “continue on the course” of providing states with flexibility in how they meet the requirements of the law.

Hundreds of Requirements

And those requirements are numerous. The federal Department of Education quietly posted a report on its Web site late last month showing that the law contains more than 580 compliance requirements—statements that contain words such as “shall,” “will” or “must,” according to Helen Lew, the assistant inspector general for audit services at the department.

School districts and even the department itself are ignoring some of those rules, and roughly 15 percent of the requirements aren’t even included in NCLB monitoring guides, says her report, which was submitted to Henry L. Johnson, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The report gives some weight to arguments by some states, such as Connecticut, that the law contains too many unfunded mandates.

Ms. Lew reviewed monitoring guides and state enforcement reports. She recommended that the department investigate whether some of the requirements could be dropped during the reauthorization process.

In a response to the inspector general’s office, however, Assistant Secretary Johnson said he disagreed with the report. “A review of monitoring documents,” he wrote, “is not an appropriate way to determine the usefulness of individual statutory provisions,” according to the report.

At last week’s hearing, one speaker also made the point that states have been dragging their feet on complying with the law and trying to water down the teacher-quality provisions as much as possible.

“In the absence of consistent oversight, states seize the opportunity to ignore the legislative intent” of Congress, said Russlynn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West in Oakland, Calif. Like its Washington counterpart, the group, which promotes standards-based education for poor and minority students, supports the NCLB law.

Ms. Ali added that federal funds, including those for professional development in schools serving poor and minority children, are not being targeted correctly.

Neither “states nor the federal government have lived up to their responsibilities,” she contended.

Other suggestions made at the hearing included improving mentoring programs for teachers during their first couple of years on the job, or screening out those who don’t meet expectations after a probationary period.

Written comments are also being accepted by the commission through its Web site, www.nclbcommission.org.

Vol. 25, Issue 32, Page 28

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