Opinion
Federal Commentary

NCLB Plan Risks ‘Slippery Slope’

By Howard P. Buck McKeon — September 17, 2007 5 min read

This year’s reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act has extraordinarily high stakes, and with high stakes comes heated rhetoric. After more than a year of public hearings and private consultation with parents, educators, and experts, Congress is drawing nearer to introduction of a bill to reauthorize the landmark law. Unfortunately, it seems the closer we come to introducing a bill, the more our dialogue deteriorates into finger-pointing and a game of “he said, she said.”

U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has offered a thoughtful Commentary entitled “Ending Accountability Loopholes.” His premise is one with which surely no one could argue. A fundamental principle of NCLB was, and is, its unprecedented commitment to accountability for results. Put another way, the law for the first time ever demands that in exchange for billions of dollars in federal education spending, schools must show academic progress for their students.

Reps. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif.

I strongly agree with Chairman Miller’s assessment that loopholes in the law must be closed, and the issues he identified are prime candidates for bipartisan reform. However, rather than blaming the U.S. secretary of education, I believe our time would be better spent focusing on the future of the law, not its past implementation. But even more than that, I strongly disagree that the solution to our accountability challenges is to close some loopholes while opening others.

The issue of N-size—the minimum number of children needed in a subgroup for that group to be counted in determining adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law—is a valid concern. I agree that reducing the maximum N-size to a reasonable figure, such as the cap of 30 proposed in the current legislative draft, is a simple, common-sense solution to ensure that significant student populations are not excluded from NCLB’s accountability systems.

Chairman Miller also takes exception to the use of “confidence intervals” in calculating student proficiency. Here, too, we agree that by inserting these mechanisms into their accountability systems, states may intentionally or unintentionally be skirting genuine accountability and shortchanging their students. These intervals add unnecessary complexity and confusion for schools and states, not to mention the parents who need good, reliable information about student achievement.

We can work together on common-sense reforms that close accountability loopholes without opening new ones.

Chairman Miller has proposed a cap on confidence intervals, which he describes as margins of error or “wiggle room.” I appreciate that proposal, and would advocate closing this loophole completely by eliminating altogether the use of this statistical subterfuge that could mask the true number of students who are not proficient in reading and mathematics.

Unfortunately, in closing some accountability loopholes, we run the risk of opening new ones through the creation of new mechanisms for assessing school performance—mechanisms that could lead us down a slippery slope of complexity and confusion.

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., second from right, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., right, and Ronald E. Jackson Executive Director, Citizens for Better Schools, Birmingham, Ala. , left, wait to address a business group on Sept. 5 about renewing the No Child Left Behind Act. Also speaking at the event was U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Proposals to introduce new metrics for school performance pose a real threat to the law’s focus on the fundamentals of reading and math. They could dilute current accountability structures and divert attention from the most critical areas. These so-called multiple measures could also greatly increase the number of tests students are required to take. That means increasing the number of tests teachers are required to administer and states are required to develop, all of which runs counter to the most common refrains we’ve heard from parents and teachers.

I also have grave concerns about any proposal that would limit the options available to parents of children in underperforming schools. A hallmark of the No Child Left Behind law is its commitment to offering parents new options when their children are in schools that aren’t making progress. This includes the option to transfer to a better-performing public or charter school or to receive free tutoring, also known as supplemental educational services, or SES. The SES provisions are particularly important to students who may have fallen behind in core subject areas. By getting help quickly, students can catch up. But without the help and support they need, students can fall further behind with each passing academic year that they remain trapped in underperforming schools.

That is why I have proposed making supplemental services available to students even earlier, after two years in which a school does not make AYP. I cannot lend my support to any bill that significantly diminishes existing options for parents. I think we should be doing more to offer meaningful educational choices, not less.

There’s another area of accountability that I think all too often is left out of the discussion, and that’s the issue of highly qualified teachers. Too often, we separate the issue of teacher quality from the broader conversation about accountability and results for students. But research and experience have shown us that one of the single most important factors when it comes to improving student achievement is the quality of the teachers in the classrooms.

Chairman Miller and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings deserve great credit for their willingness to explore innovative strategies to encourage and reward teachers for their success in improving student achievement. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the major teachers’ unions have lined up in opposition to even the very modest proposals that have been floated to provide these types of incentives to teachers.

I have long been an advocate of pay-for-performance mechanisms that give teachers the credit they deserve for student achievement. I have championed the creation of a Teacher Incentive Fund to help states design and implement systems for rewarding teacher performance. I commend both Chairman Miller and Secretary Spellings for standing up to the education establishment on this important issue, and I urge them to work together to include even stronger teacher incentives in the final legislation. After all, teacher quality and accountability go hand in hand.

The debate over NCLB reauthorization stirs passion in stakeholders of all stripes, and it’s no surprise that critics are speaking with loud voices. As policymakers, I do not believe we need to join the shouting match. Instead, we can work together on common-sense reforms that close accountability loopholes without opening new ones; add new options for parents without taking away existing ones; and adhere to the principles that produced a bipartisan bill in the first place. We have made great progress by listening to stakeholders and, most recently, releasing a discussion draft and seeking public input. We have not yet produced legislation that achieves our shared objectives, but with continued cooperation, I believe we can.

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