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Overhaul of controversial No Child Left Behind Act nears reality

ST. PAUL — Minnesotans will have more control over their schools if Congress approves a rewrite of the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., recently led a bipartisan team of congressional negotiators who put the finishing touches on a compromise to replace the school funding and accountability law.

Replacing the legislation, which most agree is deeply flawed, has long been a priority for Kline, a seven-term congressman from Burnsville who is not running for re-election in 2016.

If approved, Kline said, the compromise would dramatically scale back Washington’s role in public schools. It would eliminate what Kline called “draconian” federal mandates and penalties and allow states to develop accountability systems that best fit their local needs.

“Those are huge changes,” Kline said in an interview. “We fundamentally shift that power and control from Washington, D.C., to the states.”

Signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind is the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 during the Johnson administration.

The law provides about $14 billion a year to schools that serve mostly low-income students while ensuring those students have equal access to a quality education.

The new bill would maintain required annual proficiency tests in math and reading, Kline said. But it would allow states to decide what tests to administer and how they use the test results to hold schools and teachers accountable.

States still would have to intervene with low-

performing schools, but the federal government would be barred from dictating how.

The bill also would consolidate nearly 50 federal programs and allow school districts more control over how they spend federal money designated to help struggling students, Kline said.

Sen. Al Franken, who joined Kline on the conference committee, said he has worked on replacing NCLB since coming to Congress in 2009. The Minnesota Democrat said the compromise bill addresses many of his priorities by:

  • Giving schools more resources to address students’ mental health needs.
  • Providing better training for principals.
  • Increasing the focus on science and technology instruction.
  • Giving states the flexibility to use annual tests that more accurately measure students’ skills and provide timely information to teachers.

“No one would call this a perfect bill,” Franken said. “But I think it is an improvement.”

Franken and Kline said they were confident the compromise would be approved by both the House and Senate and signed by President Barack Obama.

The bill’s final details are expected to be made public as soon as this week when the House is expected to take up the legislation.

This month, the conference committee released a framework summary of the compromise. Local educators and policy experts have given it mixed reviews.

NCLB is blamed for ushering in an era of high-stakes testing that critics say transformed public education into a system obsessed with test scores.

School leaders became so focused on improving student test performance that other types of learning suffered, those critics contend.

The required annual exams were meant to ensure every student was improving academically toward grade-level benchmarks. Schools that repeatedly failed to meet the mark faced sometimes drastic interventions, such as the replacement of staff or closure.

Furthermore, the unrealistic expectations of NCLB, such as universal grade-level proficiency by 2014, frustrated many educators.

As a result of problems with the law, a federal waiver system was created allowing states to opt out of the legislation’s most onerous demands if they adopted certain policies set by the U.S. Department of Education.

Mary Cecconi, legislative director of Minnesota’s Parents United for Public Schools advocacy group, said the new bill doesn’t go far enough to reverse the current culture of test obsession.

Cecconi said parents, students and teachers are fed up with overtesting, which they worry is used to brand teachers and schools in nefarious ways.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, is more optimistic. While Specht is disappointed the framework doesn’t back away from annual testing, she said the new flexibility would allow Minnesota to be less obsessed with it.

“It was test, punish, kick and close,” Specht said. “Now we are looking at how can we identify struggling schools and instead of closing them, how can we hug them? How can we get them the support and resources they need?”

Supporters of annual testing and the detailed information about student proficiency those exams provide say that despite its flaws, NCLB revealed that many schools were failing students.

In Minnesota, the required tests detailed one of the nation’s most persistent achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their white and more affluent classmates.

“We know students who are behind and have challenging situations outside of school can’t afford to go several years without an assessment of their progress,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, or MinnCAN, an education reform advocate.

Sellers supports returning control over proficiency tests and school accountability to the states. But he and other supporters of strict school accountability also fear that new flexibility could allow Minnesota to back away from its high standards.

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