Earlier this month, in separate statements recognizing the sixth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President Bush, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) said all the right things about wanting to work together to finish the reauthorization of the landmark law as soon as possible. And while there were undercurrents of agreement in their rhetoric, their statements also had elements of a familiar but increasingly contentious debate that greatly contributed to the delay of the legislation’s renewal throughout last year-namely that Bush and Spellings continue to urge only minor changes in the law whereas Kennedy and Miller maintain that meaningful changes are needed.
In a speech at Horace Greeley Elementary School in Chicago, on January 7, President Bush expressed hope that he and Congress could work together to reauthorize the law. “I’m sure a lot of people look around the country and say it’s impossible for Congress and the president to work together,” he said. “I strongly disagree. We worked together to get the bill written in the first place, and I believe we can work together to get it reauthorized.”
In fact, there are several things that the president, Secretary Spellings, Senator Kennedy, and Chairman Miller agree need to be changed in the current law. For one, all seem to favor “growth models” that would give schools credit for gains in achievement that students make from year to year. In addition, they agree that NCLB needs more focus on the high school level, and that it should include a more accurate system for measuring high school dropout rates and supports that ensure that more students graduate from high school with a meaningful diploma.
“High school graduation rates continue to be a pressing issue,” Secretary Spellings said on January 8 during testimony before a joint session of the education committees of the Florida State Legislature in Tallahassee. “While younger students in Florida and many other states continue to improve, high school students have failed to make the same progress. We must take more aggressive steps to deal with what some call our nation’s silent epidemic.”
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, encouraged the president and Congress to act upon their beliefs that NCLB should do more for high schools. “Whether moved by the 1.2 million students who dropped out of school last year, by or our nation’s continued slide in international math and science rankings, the U.S. Congress and the president must reauthorize NCLB and make key changes that will help the law better address the unique challenges facing the nation’s middle and high school students,” he said. “Until a bill is reauthorized that includes the interventions and supports that these schools and their students need, the educational system will continue to fail millions of American students each year.”
But beyond agreements on growth models and some aspects of high school reform, the key players have serious differences over what should be included in a bill to reauthorize NCLB. For example, in an op-ed for the Washington Post on January 7, Senator Kennedy wrote that NCLB’s “one-size-fits-all approach encourages ‘teaching to the test’ and discourages innovation in the classroom.”
Rather than relying almost entirely on a single test, as the current law dictates, Kennedy and Miller would prefer to allow states to consider other measures of progress when determining whether a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress, such as improvements in graduation rates or improvements in the performance of the lowest- and highest-performing students. “We need to encourage local decision makers to use a broader array of information, beyond test scores, to determine which schools need small adjustments and which need extensive reforms,” Kennedy wrote.
While President Bush has said that he would accept some flexibility that does not “undermine the core principle of accountability,” such as growth models, he has been firm in his opposition to changes that he thinks would weaken the law’s accountability system and said in his January 7 speech that he will veto any bills that try to do so.
Another point of contention is funding for the law, an issue that Kennedy addressed in his op-ed. “Most of all, the law fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance,” he wrote. “We can’t achieve progress for all students on the cheap. No child should have to attend crumbling schools or learn from an outdated textbook, regardless of where he or she lives. It’s disgraceful that President Bush has failed to include adequate funding for school reform in his education budgets. Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget.”
When asked whether she agreed with Kennedy, Secretary Spellings replied that funding for education is up “significantly” since President Bush took office. “We’re going to spend more money on education-we always do, we should,” she said. “But we also need to make sure that we’re getting something for it. This ‘put the money out and hope for the best’ strategy that we’ve tried for forty years left a lot of kids behind, and that’s not the point. The point is, yes, we’ll spend money, but we have to have something for it on behalf of kids.”
Should President Bush and Congress not be able to come to an agreement on a bill to reauthorize NCLB, the president is prepared to allow Secretary Spellings to move forward on some reforms through the regulatory process that do not require Congress to act. In an interview with the Associated Press in November, Spellings said that she was considering targeting the myriad ways that states calculate high school graduation rates. “I think we need some truth in advertising,” she said, adding that she believed that her department has the power to address the reporting of graduation rates through regulation.
President Bush’s January 7 speech is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/01/20080107-2.html.
Senator Kennedy’s op-ed, “How to Fix ‘No Child,'” is available at
A copy of Secretary Spellings’s testimony in Florida is available at http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2008/01/01082008.html.
|Spellings Unveils “National Dashboard” to Map States’ Progress in Education
In a January 10 speech at the National Press Club on the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings unveiled the “National Dashboard,” a new tool on the department’s website designed to help parents and policymakers view their state’s performance on several indicators.
“We publish data to guide and promote improvement,” she said. “We are committed to our promise of grade-level or better for every child by 2014 because it’s the right thing to do. Not just for our kids, but for our country’s long-term economic security.”
The National Dashboard contains data for the nation as a whole, as well as state-level data for all fifty states and the District of Columbia. For example, it compares state-reported graduation rates to the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, a calculation by the department that has been shown to track closely with the more accurate on-time graduation rate measurements designed by independent researchers. It also contains data on achievement gaps, student achievement in reading and math, the number of schools in a state making Adequate Yearly Progress, the percentage of a state’s teachers who are “highly qualified,” and the number of students who are eligible for and are taking advantage of tutoring and choice options.
More information is available at http://www.ed.gov/nclb/accountability/results/progress/index.html.