Federal lawmakers tantalized the education community this week with a new proposal to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which nearly everyone in the education community agrees is long overdue for an update.
But the likelihood of passage seems bleak given a divided Congress. Just two days after Democratic senators released their bill, Republicans put forward one of their own that has some commonalities, but differs on many important particulars from the Democratic proposal. As The New York Times put it, “The bill faces an uphill climb.”
Here is a recap of what the two bills include, and reaction from different corners of the education world.
In The Huffington Post, Harkin’s bill, known as the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013,” was described as having a “softer version” of the annual proficiency targets that have so frustrated schools. (By next year, every child in America was supposed to have scored at the proficient level in math and reading, something that the nation’s schools are far from achieving.) Under the Harkin proposal, states will have to show “continuous improvement.”
The Post writes: “States can choose between three models of accountability to accomplish that improvement. It would also require states to implement teacher and principal evaluations that rely in part on student achievement, as defined by states.”
The bill also reduces the focus on standardized testing. States could use alternatives, like portfolios, to have students demonstrate proficiency instead.
Education Week published a more detailed bullet list of what the Harkin bill does. Here are excerpts:
• The bill keeps in place the four improvement models created under the School Improvement Grant program. But it would add another option, “whole school reform”, which allows for using turnaround programs with a super-strong evidence base.
• Schools would have to adopt standards that prepare students for post-secondary education or the workforce, but those standards would not necessarily have to be the same as the Common Core State Standards.
• States would have to create uniform report cards for every school that provide clear information about things like trends in academic achievement over a three-year period, and a rundown of how the school performs on state tests in each subject relative to the state average.
• In order to tap Title II dollars, districts and states would have to do teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth. Other measures, such as educator observations, would also have to factor in.
• The bill doesn’t wholesale adopt universal prekindergarten. Harkin is likely to introduce a separate bill that would include a broader pre-kindergarten proposal.
Republicans on the Senate education committee did not embrace the new bill. A spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander of Texas was quoted in Education Week as saying that he “believes that the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has, in effect, become a national school board and that the Harkin bill makes this congestion worse.”
From Education Week, excerpts from bulleted list describing Alexander’s bill:
• The Alexander bill would eliminate the provision on “highly qualified” teachers, and allow states to use Title II to develop teacher evaluation systems that take into account student outcomes, but it wouldn’t be a requirement.
• The Alexander bill includes a public-school choice option, which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring.
•The Alexander bill includes really specific language saying the U.S. Secretary of Education can’t require districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.
•The Alexander bill would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.
The teachers unions, perhaps not surprisingly, seemed pleased with the Democratic bill, as were groups like the Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on the achievement gap. “This is a big improvement,” Kate Tromble, the group’s director of legislative affairs, told Education Week.
Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said Harkin’s “claims of flexibility” were “laughable,” however.
In terms of what will happen in actual classrooms in the coming year, the action—or inaction—in Washington, D.C. around the legislation may not make much difference. The Washington Post reminds us that, given the stalemate in Congress, the Obama administration has already been busy working around the current NCLB requirements on its own, so that states won’t face punishments when they fail to reach the 100 percent proficiency targets for 2014:
“With Congress unable to agree on a new law, the Obama administration in 2011 began issuing waivers to states to free them from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. In exchange for waivers, states were required to adopt President Obama’s preferred education reforms.”