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Published in Print: February 21, 2007, as Panel Report Is Latest Rx for NCLB

Panel Report Is Latest Rx for NCLB

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Now that a high-profile and potentially influential panel has released its detailed proposal for revising the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration and education groups are waiting to hear from the institution that matters most: Congress.

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind last week unveiled 75 recommendations for changes to the 5-year-old federal law. The commission’s report outlines ways to determine teachers’ effectiveness using student test-score data, proposes a $400 million investment in technology so states can track individual students’ academic growth, and says that parents should have the right to sue districts if they aren’t faithfully implementing the law.

The report also could give new momentum to the push for national standards and tests, observers say.

While the leaders of the House and Senate education committees have broadly outlined their goals for reauthorizing the NCLB law, the Aspen commission offers detailed plans on how to change the law.

“All of us in Congress are waiting to really delve into these recommendations and find out how we can give life” to them, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said at the Feb. 12 Capitol Hill news conference held to release the report.

The Aspen panel’s bipartisan makeup and its leadership by two prominent former governors gives its report credibility for members of Congress in the rank-in-file, said one education observer.

“If members of Congress feel inclined to reauthorize NCLB,” said Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, “it gives them some bipartisan cover.”

Building Blocks

The Aspen panel presented a long list of proposed changes to the NCLB law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965, and the centerpiece of President Bush’s K-12 agenda—but it didn’t recommend altering the law’s basic tenets, many of which critics say are unworkable. The panel’s report calls for keeping the goal that all children become proficient in reading and mathematics by the 2013-14 school year, and that academic progress be tracked by annually assessing student progress in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Its 230-page report has a series of proposals that range from minor fixes to dramatic changes that could fundamentally alter the traditional ways teachers are compensated and states define what student should know.

Many of its proposals address issues identified by the Bush administration and advocacy groups.

Renewal Blueprints for the No Child Left Behind Act

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind is the latest organization to issue recommendations for the reauthorization of the main federal K-12 education law. Here is how the commission’s ideas compare with proposals from the Bush administration and others, including members of Congress and interest groups.

*Click on the graphic to view the complete article.

But other issues raised by the commission haven’t been proposed by others, such as the idea of allowing parents to file lawsuits in state courts claiming their states or districts weren’t adequately complying with the federal law.

Under that proposal, parents would first have to make administrative complaints to their states and the U.S. Department of Education. But if the Education Department declined to review the complaint, the parents could head to court. Judges would have the power to compel states or districts to take specific actions to comply with the law. But the courts would not be authorized to order states or districts to spend money to do so.

The right to sue would be an important tool for parents whose districts aren’t providing adequate education opportunities for children, said Tommy G. Thompson, a co-chairman of the Aspen panel and a former governor of Wisconsin. Mr. Thompson, a Republican, also was President Bush’s first-term secretary of health and human services.

Perhaps the Aspen commission’s most controversial and ambitious proposal would tie the federal law’s definition of teacher quality directly to the test-score data of students.

The commission said that Congress should appropriate $400 million over four years to help states build the data systems they would need to track the impact teachers have on their students’ academic progress, as measured by results of state tests.

The teachers who scored in the bottom 25 percent would be given professional development to help them improve their instructional methods.

Teachers who scored in the bottom quartile for seven consecutive years would no longer be permitted to teach in programs receiving money under the $12.7 billion-a-year Title I program. Title I, the NCLB law’s largest program and the longtime flagship federal effort in K-12 education, provides compensatory education for disadvantaged students.

“It’s not used to punish,” said Roy E. Barnes, the Democrat and former Georgia governor who co-chaired the commission. “It should be used to make sure we have greater professional development and improvement.”

While the commission members gave unanimous support to its other recommendations, a former teachers’ union official on the panel dissented over the teacher-pay recommendations.

“We’re trying to push off the whole problem on teachers, which I think is unfair,” said Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., a former president of the New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

What’s particularly unfair, said Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, is that at least 25 percent of teachers would be classified as needing improvement every year regardless of their students’ academic progress.

“These kinds of [teacher] evaluation systems should be decided at the local level,” Mr. Packer said last week.

What’s more, the proposals would only create a new incentive for teachers to narrow their instruction to material they knew would be on the state assessment, something that is sure to draw criticism from parents and educators, said Mr. Dorn, the University of South Florida professor. Many people contend the law already does that to far too great a degree.

“If you have teacher salaries and principal salaries … depending on test scores,” Mr. Dorn said, “we’ll look back five years from now and say: ‘Gee, there wasn’t teaching to the test then.’ ”

National Tests Redux

The commission also added to a recent revival of the idea of national academic standards and tests, another topic with a history of controversy.

The Aspen commission’s proposal would assign the task of developing new standards to the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB. The standards, which would span kindergarten to 12th grade, would be based on the proficiency standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which the board oversees. States could adopt those tests, but they wouldn’t be required to do so. However, under the Aspen plan, the federal Education Department would periodically issue reports comparing the rigor of states’ standards and tests.

While previous national-standards proposals with tests have failed, Congress may be ready to sign off on them now, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“There’s more and more of a national conversation that state standards reflect what students need to know,” Rep. Miller said in an interview after the news conference releasing the report. “There’s clearly a growing sense in the country that education is now a matter of national importance, as people look at competitiveness and the economy. … What you can’t afford is an economy in which you lose children to low standards.”

But many of the problems that derailed other attempts at national standards still exist, one expert said.

Any academic subject can become politicized over debates such as the best methods for teaching mathematics or over whether evolution should be taught as scientific theory, said Kevin R. Kosar, the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards.

“This assumes that people are not going to get into fights or try to lobby NAGB,” Mr. Kosar said.“It’s going to be very politically challenging to pull this off.”

Rep. Miller said that he didn’t know whether the Aspen proposal would be politically viable in Congress, and that he hasn’t decided how to address standards. But he did say he hopes the House will pass a reauthorization bill by the end of the year.

The Senate education committee held its first NCLB hearing this month, but Sen. Kennedy hasn’t announced a timetable for producing a bill in that chamber.

Vol. 26, Issue 24, Pages 1,30

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