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NCLB to get major overhaul

The federal education law that, for better or worse, has dominated the lives of America’s educators for the past eight years is set for another controversial and troubling renewal.

In a radio address on March 13, President Obama laid out his very broad “blueprint for reform” of No Child Left Behind, including new performance targets, a simplified but no less drastic school accountability system and measures of teacher effectiveness based partly on student test scores.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment with the blueprint, saying it appears to place “100 percent of responsibility on teachers for school success and gives them zero percent authority.” Still, she said, “we are not going to walk away.”

Since President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002, the law has won praise for its use of federal purse strings to compel the states to adopt academic standards and for spotlighting the racial achievement gap.

But just as many protested its narrow focus on test-based accountability, a credentials-oriented view of teacher quality, and a punitive approach to schools that serve poor and low-performing students.

The 45-page blueprint for the new $25 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as the law is formally known, responds to some of these concerns, while raising other troubling questions. Developed by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and legislators from both parties, the blueprint creates a new national goal: ensuring that by 2020 all students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career. This replaces NCLB’s current goal that all students meet state reading and math standards by 2014.

The blueprint also calls on states to adopt higher standards, and it supports development of new assessments that measure students’ growth, not simply their performance levels.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect is a call for states and districts to evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores.

The feds would also step in to assure that “effective” teachers and principals are deployed in high-needs schools.

In a radical upgrade of the federal role, Washington would reward states, districts and schools where students improve the most, and intervene vigorously in low-performing schools. It has already put forward a system of four choices for underperforming schools, including replacing the principal and 50 percent of the staff, closing the school, turning it over to a charter operator or instituting academic interventions and financial incentives designed to increase student achievement.

Duncan and the legislators have taken a more hands-off approach to schools that perform well. “We want to get rid of prescriptive interventions. We’ll leave it up to them to figure out how to make progress,” he told reporters.

Duncan has retained the requirement that students in grades 3-8 be tested every year in ELA and math, plus at least once in high school.

Passage of the new law will require extensive negotiation and it is uncertain when Congress will begin discussions. The AFT and the NEA will continue to voice their concerns and fight on behalf of the educators and students as this legislation goes forward.

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