Originally signed into law more than a decade ago by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) technically expired in 2007. On several occasions over the last few years, various attempts have been made by both political parties in Congress to rewrite the law, but they ultimately fell short. Since 2012, President Obama has granted waivers to thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia from some of NCLB’s requirements, including the one requiring that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Although Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed concerns about the waivers, they have been unable to pass legislation to replace them.
During a May 7 U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee hearing titled, “Raising the Bar: Exploring State and Local Efforts to Improve Accountability,” both Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), the Committee’s top Democrat, gave a glimmer of hope to education advocates hoping for an NCLB rewrite when they expressed a willingness to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB.
In his opening statement, Kline criticized the waivers as a “short-term fix to a long-term problem” and said that they left school leaders facing uncertainty, “knowing the federal requirements they must meet to maintain their waiver are subject to change with the whims of the administration.”
Kline said the committee will move forward with a proposal to rewrite NCLB “in the coming months” based on four principles that Republicans believe are critical to rebuilding and strengthening the nation’s education system: (1) restoring local control and encouraging states and school districts to develop their own accountability plans; (2) reducing the federal footprint by eliminating duplicative or ineffective federal programs; (3) focusing on teacher effectiveness by allowing states and school districts to develop their own teacher evaluation systems based in part on student achievement; and (4) empowering parents to select the school that best fits their children’s needs.
Noting that states, districts, and schools are making “large-scale” transitions to new standards, new assessments, new accountability, and new school improvement systems and teacher evaluation systems, Miller said these transitions were occurring without a federal partner.
“Between congressional inaction on ESEA and sequestration, we have created an uncertain environment and we’re not offering people the support that could help them succeed in a time of massive transformation,” Miller said in his opening statement, adding that a “proper” reauthorization of ESEA presents an “incredible opportunity to take schools into the future.”
Like Kline, Miller said he had “deep concerns” with the waivers and their implementation, but he acknowledged that he understood why the administration undertook the waiver process. “Many of those concerns stem from the states wanting to adopt policies that reach back to pre–No Child Left Behind, such as proposing to diminish or to not have subgroup accountability,” Miller said. “We all agree, Democrats and Republicans and the administration, that the federal role should shift in this reauthorization. States, districts, and schools should be able to manage their schools in a way that current law doesn’t allow.”
Issues that Miller outlined as priorities for Democrats included identifying and improving low-performing schools, having high expectations for students and schools that ensure students graduate ready to succeed in college and the workforce, and maintaining a commitment to civil rights.
The hearing also featured testimony from Louisiana Department of Education Superintendent John White; Northfield Public Schools (MN) Superintendent Chris Richardson; Eric Gordon, chief executive officer of Cleveland Metropolitan School District; and Matthew Given, chief development officer of EdisonLearning (Atlanta, GA).
Witnesses identified several positive benefits from NCLB, including its focus on data that highlighted achievement gaps between student subgroups. Still, witnesses called NCLB “deeply flawed” and said that the gains they were seeing were often in spite of NCLB and not because of it. Some specific flaws they identified were NCLB’s “one-size-fits-all” improvement models and its failure to consider subjects such as science, social students, the arts, and twenty-first-century workforce skills.
During his testimony, Richardson discussed how Northfield teachers were grouped into professional learning communities (PLCs) by grade level or subject area and were responsible for analyzing student data to address their needs. “Each PLC team combs data, identifies students not on track, determines appropriate interventions, [and] implements those interventions,” Richardson said. “Many students are back on track within six weeks.”
In one high school, longitudinal data revealed that failing classes as a freshman increased the chances that a student would not graduate on time or drop out. In response, the PLC developed an academy for struggling students that included smaller classes and individualized instruction after school hours. After implementing the program, the percentage of freshmen failing dropped from 25 percent to 8 percent and the graduation rate went up to 96 percent.
Northfield was also able to raise the graduation rate of its Latino immigrant students, who make up about 12 percent of the student population, from 36 percent to more than 90 percent by implementing a program called Tackling Obstacles Raising College Hopes (TORCH) that helps support and provide career exploration postsecondary opportunities for these students. As a result, the school saw an 1,100 percent increase in TORCH graduates accessing postsecondary education.
Witness testimony and archived video from the hearing are available at http://edworkforce.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=332571.