As Congress debates the future of health care legislation, activists are already preparing for the next major fight on Capitol Hill - the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), scheduled for early next year. On Monday night, a panel of experts from federal, state and local governments and university researchers will be discussing the law and its future at Shriver Hall on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University.
No Child Left Behind was President George W. Bush's most noteworthy domestic achievement. Passed with bipartisan support in 2001, the law had several worthwhile goals - primary among them, to end the "soft bigotry of low expectations of minority students."
The law advocated a test-based system of accountability. States were required to develop standards for reading and math; students in grades three through eight were to be tested each year; and all students were expected to be proficient by 2014. Test scores of subgroups, such as minorities, English language learners, and special-needs children, were to be separated out. Schools failing to make "annual yearly progress" for the whole school or a subgroup would face escalating sanctions. After five failing years, a school could be closed or face a state takeover.
The sanctions have been controversial for stigmatizing many schools as failures. In Baltimore, teachers in low-performing schools have been transferred and principals reassigned. Four years ago, the state's threatened takeover of some failing city schools became a political sideshow in the gubernatorial contest between Martin O'Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Many have praised the intent of No Child Left Behind, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who credits the law for exposing the achievement gap between white and minority students. However, a consensus is emerging among researchers and educators that reforms to the law are needed. These include finding a better way to measure student achievement, setting more uniform national test standards and ensuring other subjects don't get sacrificed to reading and math.
* Measuring student progress. The current pass/fail system for schools does not offer enough information on student status. One promising approach being studied, called a student growth model, looks at student performance over time and measures progress against predetermined standards. This gives educators more information to address the needs of individual students. Such an approach is under consideration by the U.S. Department of Education, which is looking at a pilot system in a number of states.
* Setting standards. NCLB imposes strict standards on schools to make yearly progress. However, the law lets states set their own standards. It should be no surprise that a recent study by the Thomas Fordham Foundation found that the quality of educational standards declined in 30 states between 2000 and 2006, and that two-thirds of the nation's schoolchildren attend class in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations of what students should learn. The study pointed out that a school considered a failure in one part of the country could be successful in another. New legislation should encourage states to voluntarily adopt uniform standards for math and science developed by a nationally recognized group such as the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
* Too much emphasis on math and reading. With all the attention focused on reading and math scores, other content areas are being shortchanged. As a former teacher noted of the effects of NCLB, "our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory, and what's left are double math classes." A survey by the Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to make more time for math and reading. Policymakers need to make sure there are incentives for local schools to maintain more balance in the school curriculum.
On Monday night, Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, is expected to outline for the Hopkins School of Education audience some of the changes the Obama administration would like to see to the current law. Unlike the debate over health care, there have been encouraging signs of bipartisan efforts in Congress to examine what does and doesn't work. Hopefully, all sides will find agreement on doing what's best for America's children,
James Campbell is a member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners and a senior communications manager for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.