Congress is ignoring Miller’s plea. The Senate’s current reauthorization proposal, which is four years overdue, does not spell out what will happen to schools that don’t measure up. (Probably nothing, some education-reform advocates grumble.) No one questioned, though, that the Senate rewrite would maintain the law’s once-controversial requirement that annual reports be broken down by race, gender, poverty level, and disability.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is sponsoring the No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill. “We must be willing to shift to new approaches when the old ones aren’t working,” he said in a floor speech defending the measure.
In response to NJ’s request, Harkin said this of No Child Left Behind: “One-size-fits-all sanctions and the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency, though well-intentioned, have proven to be ineffective.”
Like most education policymakers, he wants to rectify the unfair benchmarks that measure schools. His bill simply gets rid of them, raising the hackles of No Child Left Behind supporters. But Harkin has no choice if he wants the measure to go anywhere. To win support from Enzi, the Education Committee’s chief Republican, Harkin was forced to abandon any achievement targets. As currently written, the bill would subject schools to benchmarks with no teeth.
Harkin’s bill stands to get even weaker in the current political climate. Only three committee Republicans grudgingly supported it, and a Senate floor vote has been delayed indefinitely. Even though the bill greatly weakens the massive federal oversight of states, Republicans think it is still too invasive.
House Republicans, for their part, aren’t willing to put together a large rewrite of No Child Left Behind, preferring to nick away at it with smaller, incremental measures. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is keen on local control for schools. He has pushed a charter-school bill and a federal funding flexibility measure to accomplish that. “We need to place more emphasis on the progress being made at the state and local levels,” Kline said.
Supporters of Harkin’s efforts say that times have changed since No Child Left Behind was passed and that his approach just recognizes a new era for education. Concrete benchmarks, if they worked at all, are no longer needed, these experts say. States have made significant progress in how they assess schools, and they all are moving toward the Common Core state standards.
Those standards have the benefit of being generated outside of Washington as a consensus document from multiple stakeholders. They suffer from being more complex and far-reaching than the simple grade-level reading and math requirements of No Child Left Behind. They are akin to a five-star restaurant being offered as a replacement for a fast-food burger joint.
Still, the Common Core effort reinserts the “state laboratory” element to public education that some fault No Child Left Behind for squelching. “It gives us a formula for a different kind of accountability,” said Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers who helped to craft the Common Core standards.
Wilhoit characterizes No Child Left Behind as a necessary wake-up call to the states to raise their game on education. And now, he says, the law “has run its course.”
NJ consulted the following experts in assessing No Child Left Behind:
• Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a lead cosponsor
• House Speaker John Boehner, a lead cosponsor
• Sandy Kress, lead White House negotiator
• Margaret Spellings, former Education secretary
• Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman, House Education and the Workforce Committee
• Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
• Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking member, HELP Committee
• Dan Domenech, executive director, American Association of School Administrators
• Gene Wilhoit, executive director,Council of Chief State School Officers
• National School Boards Association
• American Civil Liberties Union
• Patrick Riccards, CEO of ConnCan
• Kati Haycock, president, Education Trust
• Charles Barone, federal policy director, Democrats for Education Reform
• Dennis Van Roekel, president, National Education Association
• Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers
• Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies, American Enterprise Institute
• Richard Rothstein, education research associate, Economic Policy Institute
• Thomas Toch, education journalist and cofounder of the Education Sector
• Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado (Boulder)
• Sherman Dorn, education professor, University of South Florida
This article appears in the Dec. 10, 2011, edition of National Journal.