No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top, and Now Two New Alternatives—How Much Would Really Change?

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A thorough rewrite by Congress of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is more than five years overdue, in spite of widespread discontent with the law. NCLB has fostered over-reliance on state test scores as the measure of educational achievement, over-identification of schools as failing, and misallocation of resources. Even high-performing schools under NCLB are subject to sanctions for failing to attain the unattainable “adequate yearly progress” goal of 100-percent student proficiency by 2014.

The Obama administration has filled the vacuum left by congressional gridlock with executive action granting waivers of NCLB requirements, in exchange for states’ embrace of a specific set of policies, including: school turnarounds stressing mass replacement of school staff, turning schools over to charter operators, and school closure; teacher evaluation tied to students’ test scores; and adoption of nationally developed curriculum standards or the equivalent. The Obama administration has tied Race to the Top economic-stimulus funding, school-improvement grants, and other federal funding streams to essentially these same criteria.

This week alternative congressional proposals to rewrite NCLB have finally emerged. A common thread among them is continued heavy reliance on standardized state tests as the primary gauge of school performance, with results reported for student subgroups. But the proposals would depart in varying ways from the NCLB status quo, and they diverge in other important respects.

The 1,150-page U.S. Senate Democratic proposal, as reported in Education Week, would allow use of a series of formative assessments in place of one summative test, making room for the use of portfolios and performance tasks to demonstrate achievement. The Democratic plan lets states that have received NCLB waivers based on meeting criteria from the U.S. Department of Education continue with their already-approved accountability plans.

The Democratic plan, offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), would create new turnaround options for low-performing schools under the School Improvement Grant program. A SIG school could try evidence-based “whole school reform,” and under the “restart” option schools could become magnet schools rather than charters.

Another new feature of the Harkin plan is an “equity scorecard” to provide school-level information to parents on the school’s climate (including discipline data), the school’s educational-opportunity offerings (such as AP, full-day kindergarten, or gifted programming), the number of assessments required, and the school’s funding by source (state, local, and federal).

On the contentious issue of teacher evaluation, the Harkin plan would require evaluation based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth, but would not necessarily tie the outcome data to high-stakes personnel decisions such as salaries and terminations. That would appear to be a departure from the Obama administration’s current policies promoting high-stakes use of achievement-test results.

A U.S. Senate Republican alternative from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) would depart even more markedly from the Obama administration’s approach. Sen. Alexander’s bill would require pretty much the same level of testing and reporting of results, but it would not prescribe the interventions needed for low-performing schools, and it would allow but not require the use of student outcomes in teacher evaluation. The Alexander bill also reportedly would specify that the U.S. Department of Education could not require districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.

The Senate Republican proposal does not contain a private-school voucher component—yet. The latest word is that an amendment to the proposal will introduce that controversial component. On that score, the contrast with the Harkin Democratic proposal will become very clear. The Democratic plan does not and will not include private-school vouchers.

You might be wondering at this point whether there’s any chance of reconciling these alternative approaches. The answer is—not much, at least not for the foreseeable future. While the two sides in the Senate are likely to join issue over the rewriting of NCLB in committee next week, and the U.S. House Republican majority is likely to pass yet another NCLB rewrite of its own (including private-school vouchers), most analysts agree that partisan gridlock will prevent final passage of any NCLB revision—possibly until a new Congress and a new President take office in 2017. The debate this month will still merit your attention and engagement, though, because it will help to set the parameters for the policies that eventually do become law.