Former Ed. Secretary Riley Says Law Needs Change of Emphasis

By Mark Walsh — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says the federal No Child Left Behind Act merits some tinkering to shift its emphasis from “compliance” back to teaching and learning.

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“I think it needs some changes, but I think you need to do that in a very careful way,” Mr. Riley said in a July 28 interview with Education Week at the Democratic National Convention here. “I strongly support the goals, the purposes, I always have. ... I worry that the way it’s being seen in many circles is somewhat punitive rather than challenging, and somewhat top-down instead of encouraging the creative juices of teachers to teach well and for students to learn.”

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Audio Extras:

  • Education Week reporter Erik Robelen files a final report at the close of the convention. (3:11) Windows Media format | MP3 format
  • Education Week editor Mark Walsh reports on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s appearance at an early childhood education forum. (2:27) Windows Media format | MP3 format
  • Mark Walsh reports on Democrats’ youth outreach efforts. (2:00) Windows Media format | MP3 format
  • Opening day interview with reporter Erik Robelen. (2:35) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Mr. Riley, who was education secretary during all eight years of President Clinton’s administration, headed the delegation from South Carolina, where he served as governor from 1979 to 1987. He said President Bush deserves some credit for making the school-improvement legislation, which was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a priority and for dropping his proposal for private school vouchers from the measure.

“I thought he came a long way in our direction,” Mr. Riley said. The legislation, which Mr. Bush signed into law in January 2002, is “built on the standards movement—strong accountability; [it] got stronger as it went through.”

Asked whether he thought Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who became the Democratic presidential nominee that night, would be better than President Bush on education issues, Mr. Riley quickly said: “I think Kerry would be better in every regard, especially on domestic matters. ... Especially on education.”

The former education secretary noted that Mr. Kerry was in the Senate throughout the Clinton administration, and that “he supported a lot of progressive ideas on education.”

“He was always there. He supported us 100 percent of the time,” Mr. Riley said. “John Kerry is going to be a super education supporter. I’m totally convinced of that.”

He recalled that Sen. Kerry supported the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA, which laid the groundwork for the No Child Left Behind Act by calling on states to create education standards and aligned assessments for the first time.

“You really can’t have accountability until you have standards,” Mr. Riley said. “You have to have something to have accountability for.”

One troubling facet of the No Child Left Behind law, he said, is that standards for making adequate yearly progress under the law vary widely across the states. “You’ve got some pitfalls in there of each state having different standards,” he said. “That’s a real complicated thing. Our state has high standards, so we have a lot of schools to fail.”

Mr. Riley, a former member of the governing board that oversees the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, said: “At some point in time, we ought to have something that looks like national standards. Whether we want to go that far or not, I don’t know.”

He said he appreciates the federal law’s requirement that schools break down their achievement data to show improvement for subgroups of students under classifications such as race and disability.

“I strongly believe in the emphasis on minorities and [students with disabilities] and all of that,” Mr. Riley said. “I think the intention is good.”

The No Child Left Behind Act has become something of a tricky political issue for Democrats, who helped write the law and voted for it in overwhelming numbers. It has come under increasing fire from teachers’ unions, state officials, and others. And both Sen. Kerry and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have criticized elements of the law, which both of them voted for.

Mr. Riley said he thought the two top Democratic architects of the law, Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, would be amenable to tinkering with the act, even though they have resisted so far making legislative changes to it.

“I think both of them would be willing to participate in an analysis to see what is working well, what isn’t, understanding that we’re not changing the direction, not changing the accountability feature, but really trying to make it work in a very sensible, practical way,” Mr. Riley said. “We really ought to have more in there about teaching and learning, and less about compliance.”

Mr. Riley said he had not given much thought about whom Sen. Kerry might select as secretary of education if he wins the White House.

“But there are an awful lot of good people out there,” he said. “Good former governors. Former [state schools] chiefs. Former education leaders in the state legislatures and the Congress. It ought to be someone who understands the political system and understands education. And [who] understands teaching and learning. I think we need to get back to emphasizing teaching and learning, not compliance.”

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