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Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as NCLB Panel Favors Retaining Law’s Core Measures

NCLB Panel Favors Retaining Law’s Core Measures

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Leaders of a high-profile private panel charged with recommending changes to the No Child Left Behind Act say they want to keep the central tenets of the 4½-year-old law, increasing the possibility that the law will not undergo wholesale changes when Congress reauthorizes it.

The two former state governors heading the project are endorsing existing elements such as annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, accountability for schools and districts based on test scores for all demographic groups, and the goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

“Those basics principles are good,” Roy E. Barnes, a former Georgia governor and a co-chairman of the bipartisan group formed by the Aspen Institute that will recommend changes to the federal law, said last week. “Those basic things really have to stay,” the Democrat said. “The reason is … they are time-tested.”

The 15-member Commission on No Child Left Behind plans to issue its recommendations in January.

“We’re going to try to get this report to focus on the principles set by Congress on a bipartisan basis,” Tommy G. Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and the other co-chairman of the Aspen Institute committee, told reporters during a break at a Sept. 25 hearing convened by the panel.

In addition to the two former governors, the Department of Education’s No. 2 official and a roster of influential K-12 advocates said at the hearing that the main thrust of the controversial education law should be inviolable.

Refining Accountability

“We will recommend that the principles remain intact,” Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon told the panel in an auditorium at George Washington University here. “We do not want to abandon the progress our teachers, our principals, and our states have made.”

Instead, Mr. Simon and others said, the panel should outline ways to refine the law’s accountability system so it rewards schools for growth of student progress, to ensure states’ standards are demanding enough, and to assist state officials in turning around low-performing schools.

Congress is scheduled next year to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the most recent overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and covers Title I and several other federal K-12 programs. Although Congress is likely to defer acting to reauthorize the law until 2008, or even later, policymakers and advocates are starting to form their positions and lobbying strategies.

Observers have been speculating, meanwhile, about the potential impact on the reauthorization if the Democrats gain control of one or both houses of Congress in next month’s elections. Though key Democrats have voiced strong support for the law’s core features, some in their party could seek bigger changes. ("Political Shift Could Temper NCLB Resolve," Sept. 27, 2006.)

The Department of Education, Mr. Simon said, has “identified several themes that will guide our discussions” of what to request from Congress. Administration officials are investigating ways to expand NCLB requirements in high schools and to give parents more choices to transfer their children out of low-performing school, Mr. Simon said.

Leaders of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group advocating improved performance for low-income children, teachers’ unions, and other Washington-based groups also outlined their initial positions on reauthorization at last week’s hearing.

The commission, which includes state and local policymakers, two former Clinton administration officials, researchers, a teacher, and a prominent business leader, will likely play a significant role in framing the debate over the reauthorization of the NCLB law.

Staying the Course

While the panel itself and other groups represented at the hearing are rallying around the law’s basic elements, critics say that the its ambitious achievement goals will be impossible for schools to meet, and that the accountability systems haven’t been proved to accurately gauge whether a school is successful.

“The legitimate researchers … are saying this thing cannot possibly work,” William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, a regional agency overseeing 11 Vermont school districts enrolling 2,000 students said in an interview.

The law’s supporters are “pretending that this thing can work,” he added. “Pure and simple, it can’t.”

Such criticisms were muted at the hearing sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank that describes itself as dedicated to finding nonpartisan solutions to public-policy issues.

Reg Weaver, the president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and one of the most vocal critics of the No Child Left Behind law, focused his statement on how to fix the assessments mandated by the law and revise the way its key measurement, adequate yearly progress, is calculated. He also requested more federal money for the law, which received $17.4 billion for fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30.

Mr. Thompson, a Republican who also served as the secretary of health and human services during President Bush’s first term, said the Aspen Institute would focus its report exclusively on policy issues and let Congress set appropriations levels.

NAEP as ‘Referee’

When it comes to refining the law, for example, Mr. Thompson asked whether Congress should require the creation of a national test that would provide parents with data to determine whether state standards are challenging enough. The law requires states to participate in the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress to provide a comparison with student achievement on state tests.

“I don’t think that’s possible in this particular environment,” Mr. Simon of the Education Department said of the idea of a national test. “We should keep NAEP there as a referee. That’s creating some good discussion in individual states.”

But the Council of the Great City Schools would endorse a set of national standards in subjects the law requires states to assess—reading, mathematics, and science—so that states would have a common achievement goal to reach, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington group, which represents 66 urban districts.

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Pages 21-22

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