Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the current front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, today blasted the No Child Left Behind Act as narrowing schools’ curricula and relying too heavily on standardized tests at the expense of student creativity.
“We can all agree that we do need measures,” she told the New York State United Teachers’ annual convention in the nation’s capital. “We do need accountability. But not the kind of accountability that the NCLB law has imposed on people. Not only has it been funded at less than has been promised, it’s been administered with a heavy and arbitrary hand.”
“It’s time we had a president who cares more about learning than about memorizing,” Sen. Clinton added. “The tests have become the curriculum instead of the other way around.”
The crowd of about 3,000 at the Washington Hilton, which had been waving “New York [Heart]’s Hillary” signs when Sen. Clinton took the stage, erupted into thunderous applause. She was the only presidential candidate appearing before the union.
Sen. Clinton voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. As a formal presidential candidate since January, she has yet to release any detailed proposals for overhauling the law, which is due for reauthorization this year.
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, suggested in a speech to the National School Boards Association earlier this month that the law be amended to test students less frequently, possibly three times during their K-12 careers instead of annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school.
Sen. Clinton wasn’t nearly as specific about which changes she would seek for the NCLB law’s testing requirements. Still, she said that lawmakers need to “rethink how we do assessments” under the law.
Her remarks indicated that she knew her audience. The 575,000-member NYSUT, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, has been highly critical of the federal law, calling for it to be more flexible and less punitive.
Testing Taking Over
Sen. Clinton couched her criticisms of the law’s testing provisions in terms of economic competitiveness, which has been a buzz phrase in education policy.
“Isn’t it ironic that China is now looking at how they can open up their schools to creativity, while we are becoming more like rote learning centers?” she said.
Sen. Clinton also criticized the law’s provisions allowing students in schools that fail to meet achievement targets to receive access to tutoring, often provided by private companies. She said that since such tutors aren’t subject to the same accountability regulations as public school educators and administrators, it’s difficult to tell whether such supplemental services are working.
She said policymakers should focus resources instead on what she described as proven remedies, such as smaller class sizes and enhanced parent involvement. Teachers deserve greater professional respect and higher pay, particularly if they are willing to work in some of the hardest-to-staff schools, she said.
Sen. Clinton also criticized her colleagues in Congress for what she said was a failure to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides federal money to school districts to help educate students in special education.
While Sen. Clinton gave her audience—some of whom hissed at the mere mention of No Child Left Behind—plenty to cheer about, she reasserted her support for charter schools, to the chagrin of some.
Still, the speech appeared to have resonated with most of her audience. Several union members said that they were more inclined to vote for her after hearing her speak.
“I liked what she had to say. The testing is just taking over, and I hope she can change that,” if she becomes president, said Jane Cassidy, a special education teacher at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown, N.Y. Ms. Cassidy, a Democrat, said she is leaning toward supporting Sen. Clinton in next year’s presidential primary.
“I thought she had excellent things to say,” said Thomas Stephens, a social studies teacher at Hicksville Middle School, in Hicksville, N.Y., who called the NCLB law “the worst thing that’s ever happened to public education.”