By Dan Lips
Congress is preparing to take up the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, but parents and taxpayers shouldn't get their hopes up. An early draft of the new NCLB bill suggests that congressional leaders are working to make the already flawed program worse.
As is well known, No Child Left Behind's problems are myriad. The law dramatically increased federal authority in education, eroding state and local control and imposing a heavy bureaucratic burden on school systems across the country. Its high-stakes testing requirements created a strong incentive for states to engage in a "race to the bottom" by weakening standards and making tests easier to pass. And few children have benefited from NCLB's very weak school choice options. These lackluster reforms were purchased with dramatic increases in federal spending.
But even the current version of No Child Left Behind is significantly better than what Congress is now discussing.
The House Education and Labor Committee, led by Representative George Miller (D-CA), recently released a 435-page draft of its reauthorization bill. (The committee's summary of the discussion draft is available here.) The bill would fundamentally alter some of NCLB's core provisions.
The biggest changes would be to the law's testing and school reform requirements. The committee's plan would allow states to incorporate "multiple indicators" into their testing systems. This means that schools that fail to meet state benchmarks on reading and math tests could earn "extra credit" - and escape school reform requirements - if their students perform well in other areas, such as graduation rates and college preparation.
The draft language would also weaken testing requirements for certain student groups, such as English language learners and special education students. For example, the amended legislation would allow states to use portfolio assessments and native language tests for English language learners for five or more years. The result would be that states would no longer be pushed to make rapid English acquisition a priority. So much for leaving no child behind.
The committee's plan would also reduce the penalties for schools that fail to meet state benchmarks. The draft language would amend NCLB's school reform requirements to create two levels of schools in need of improvement: "priority schools" and "high priority schools." Schools that miss "adequate yearly progress" benchmarks for only one or two subgroups of populations would now be merely "priority schools" and would not be required to provide new options to disadvantaged children. Suburban schools that generally perform well but fail to improve the performance of minority children would effectively be let off the hook.
This change is bad news for hundreds of thousands of kids trapped in failing public schools. Under the new plan, far fewer students would be eligible for free tutoring and public school transfers. What's worse, even when public schools are required to give students new options, the new plan would allow public schools to use funds currently budgeted for tutoring and transfers on "extended school day" programs. The perverse result: Children would be spending even more hours per day in the struggling public schools that aren't serving them well.
Despite making extensive modifications to testing and school reform requirements, the committee's draft bill doesn't solve the problem of the "race to the bottom" in student testing. The bill does includes the common-sense change of allowing states to implement growth-model testing, which measures whether teachers and schools are effective in boosting individual students' learning year over year. But the draft would not remove federal requirements for ever-increasing gains in student performance, thus leaving in place the system that pressures states to dumb down their tests to avoid federal sanctions and bad publicity.
Finally, the draft legislation would also expand federal authority and regulations, create new programs, and place new administrative burdens on state and local education agencies. The committee's full plans for expanding the current law and increasing federal authority will become clearer as more proposals are unveiled in the days ahead.
Those following the NCLB reauthorization debate should expect the legislation to evolve as the process moves forward. The committee has been accepting comments, suggestions, and recommendations from the public. Special interest groups are busy pounding the halls of Congress to push last-minute changes before the bill heads to committee mark-up.
But the overall thrust of the legislation is unlikely to budge. Parents and taxpayers can expect No Child Left Behind to only get worse during the reauthorization.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.