In Minnesota, No Child Left Behind overhaul nears reality

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, November 28, 2015

 

Minnesotans will have more control over their schools if Congress approves a long-overdue 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 that 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 (NCLB) 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 would still 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.

They said they hoped to have the legislation to Obama by the end of the year.

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.

NOT FAR ENOUGH

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.

“All of those really bad results of 2001 are still in play,” she said. “This was a huge diversion from where schools needed to go, and now we are so mired in it, it will be hard to change.”

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?”

CAREFUL BALANCE

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.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said he hopes state leaders will continue to hold schools to high standards and push them to close achievement gaps.

Accountability policies shouldn’t just focus on the most struggling schools, he said. Bartholomew argues they should be aimed at all schools, especially those with achievement gaps.

“We can either take this opportunity to do something good for kids,” he said, “or we can do things that make life easier for the system but don’t necessarily benefit kids.”

School leaders are thankful Congress appears ready to finally replace NCLB. But there is also fear that states again will be redesigning school accountability systems.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said school leaders support the state’s current Multiple Measurement Ratings system. He said he hopes the update of the federal law will allow state lawmakers to fine-tune the existing system not throw it out and start again.

“We would not be serving students well, and it would create a nightmare for educators if we look to change the system every few years,” Amoroso said.

“I’d like to take what we have and see what the (new) expectations are and how those expectations intermix with the current assessment process. To start over again will set us back.”

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan.

HIGHLIGHTS

The compromise No Child Left Behind replacement would:

— Reduce the federal government’s role in school oversight.

— Repeal the requirement of universal academic proficiency and allow states to develop accountability systems.

— Maintain annual math and reading testing in grades three through eight and once in high school, and three science proficiency tests between third and 12th grade.

— Require states to intervene in the lowest performing schools.

— Forbid the federal government to offer incentives to states that adopt any standards, including the Common Core.

— Give schools flexibility on how they use federal funds designated to help struggling students.

TIMELINE

Key moments in the history of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA):

— President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the bill into law in 1965 as part of his administration’s War on Poverty. The law provides federal funding for education while ensuring all students have access to a quality education.

— Congress renews the law about every five years from 1970 to 2000.

— President George W. Bush signs No Child Left Behind, the existing version of the ESEA, in 2002. The act requires student achievement be measured and reported annually.

— NCLB comes up for reauthorization in 2007, but Congress can’t agree on how to rewrite the law.

— Absent a rewrite, the U.S. Department of Education creates a waiver system in 2012 to exempt states from the most unworkable pieces of NCLB, including the requirement all students are proficient by 2014.

— Minnesota is among the first group of states to have an NCLB waiver approved in February 2012.

— The House and Senate pass rewrites of NCLB in summer 2015.

— A conference committee agrees Nov. 19 on a framework for the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to replace NCLB.

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