Members of the Senate education committee started their hearings on renewing the No Child Left Behind Act by asking what may be the most pressing question raised by the law: What has to happen to turn schools rife with low academic performance into communities where students are achieving at proficiency?
“The federal role in assisting these schools may be our greatest challenge, and it’s our top priority for this reauthorization,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said at the Feb. 8 hearing.
“We know what makes a good school,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the committee. “What we don’t know is how to make a low-performing school into a high-performing school.”
Eight witnesses offered various ideas for fixing the lowest-achieving schools: provide reading coaches and turnaround specialists, close failing schools and restart them from scratch, and extend the school day.
But just about all of them said the NCLB law has provided every school with a wealth of data that are giving educators clues on how to refine their instruction to help students who are struggling to reach the law’s goal that all students become proficient in reading and mathematics.
“The beauty of No Child Left Behind is it has helped us to see our failures,” said Michael P. Flanagan, Michigan’s superintendent of schools. “You have to look in the mirror and see that not everything is hunky-dory.”
“It is critical that we teach our teachers how to look at data,” said Richard Coleman, the director of the Achievable Dream Academy, a public school serving low-income students in the 32,500-student Newport News, Va., school district.
In the data, Mr. Coleman said, teachers can identify the skills that their students’ haven’t learned so they can intervene to help them learn them.
The Senate committee hearing was the first formal congressional step in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, the law requires states to assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school and to name schools that aren’t making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward having all of their students proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
To make AYP, schools must meet achievement targets for specified socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, as well as for students with disabilities and English-language learners.
How states and districts should intervene in schools that fail to meet AYP goals for five consecutive years will be a central debate in the reauthorization.
The participants in last week’s hearing discussed a range of possibilities for fixing struggling schools. But none mentioned the Bush administration’s recently announced proposal to provide vouchers for students in those schools to redeem for tuition at private schools. (“Bush Offers ‘Blueprint’ for NCLB,” Jan. 31, 2007.)
But educators offered several ideas on fixing the problems of struggling schools using existing public school services.
In Michigan, the state education department has identified what it calls high-priority schools and assigns school support teams to them. Those teams, which are based in the state’s intermediate districts, audit the schools’ performance and help school leaders devise plans to turn the schools around.
In Alabama, regional reading coaches have helped schools identify their problems and address them. The goal is to change the culture of the school so that all teachers in it believe that their students can meet the NCLB law’s ambitious achievement goals, said Martha S. Barber, a regional coach for the Alabama Reading Initiative.
“When that changes, then everything else changes,” said Ms. Barber, who works with schools in and around Birmingham.
At the K-8 Achievable Dream Academy in Virginia, school is in session 205 days a year—25 more than required by the state—on a year-round schedule. The school day lasts from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday classes are offered to students who are not keeping up with their schoolwork.
During two-week breaks throughout the school year, teachers examine student performance on tests and map out instructional strategies to address students’ weaknesses and build on their strengths, said Mr. Coleman, the school’s director.
Last week’s hearing was the first of what Sen. Kennedy said would be numerous sessions informing the Senate committee on the impact of the federal education law, which he helped craft in 2001 with the Bush administration and congressional colleagues from both parties.
Sen. Kennedy said in a statement that future hearings would address issues such as improving high schools, the impact of the tutoring and school choice requirements in the law, how to improve testing and accountability measures in the law, and other issues.
The House has not yet scheduled its hearings. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, has said he shares Sen. Kennedy’s goal of reauthorizing the law on schedule this year, a timeline endorsed by President Bush as well.
But many observers expect that Congress will postpone renewal of the NCLB law until 2008 or even 2009. They note that lawmakers already have a full education agenda that includes making college more affordable and increasing the amount of money available for NCLB and other programs, on top of such urgent issues as the war in Iraq and the likely distractions of the 2008 presidential campaign.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Begins Examination of NCLB