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Educators await Obama's mark on No Child Left Behind

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eight years after President George W. Bush signed the bill that branded an era of school reform, the education world is wondering when President Obama will seek to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law.

Obama officials, who for months have been on a "listening and learning" tour, are expected to propose a framework for the successor to a law that is two years overdue for reauthorization. Time is growing short if Obama aims for action before midterm elections, which could weaken Democratic majorities in Congress.

As the anniversary of the law's enactment passed quietly Friday, an occasion Bush marked throughout his presidency as a domestic policy milestone, the regimen of standardized testing and school accountability remains intact.

Every year from grades three to eight, and at least once in high school, students must take reading and math exams. Every year, public schools are rated on the progress they make toward the law's goal of universal proficiency by 2014. And every year, states label more schools as falling short and impose sanctions on them, including shakeups and shutdowns.

"In many ways, [No Child Left Behind] is a compact disc in an iPod world," Bob Wise, president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, said in a statement. "It's still around, but it is in desperate need of an upgrade." His group wants more provisions in the law to prevent high school dropouts.

In September, Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a speech on reauthorization titled "Why We Can't Wait." He praised the Bush-era law for shining a light on academic disparities but said it should be revised to promote a well-rounded curriculum, equal opportunity for disadvantaged students and academic growth toward high standards. He disparaged "game-playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals." Duncan also has advocated expansion of high-caliber public charter schools and initiatives to evaluate and pay teachers in part on gains in student test scores.

But Duncan and top congressional Democrats have not yet proposed detailed revisions to the law or laid out a timetable for action.

"We're on a path to doing this in 2010, but the exact timing will be determined by Congress and the White House," Peter Cunningham, assistant education secretary for communications and outreach, said Friday.

For several months, the administration has sought to spur school reform among states through the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition. Piecing together a coalition for a new education law could prove more difficult. No Child Left Behind passed with huge bipartisan majorities but in recent years has come under attack from the political left and the right. Liberals are suspicious of standardized testing; conservatives are leery of federal mandates.

Former education secretary Margaret Spellings said Friday that the Obama team has "taken some bold stands" but that Democrats must be judged on whether they seek to alter the law's pillars. She cited the oft-criticized goal of proficiency for all students by 2014.

"It is a big deal," Spellings said. "It's one of the holy grails, as far as I'm concerned. If you don't have a real deadline, you've essentially gutted accountability."

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of the law who served under President George H.W. Bush, predicted that Obama will not deviate sharply from policies he inherited. "They're really not going to repudiate No Child Left Behind," Ravitch said. "They're just going to rename it and add the twist of more choice, more accountability."

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