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Updated 'No Child' law would focus on failing schools

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By Nick Anderson
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

For most public schools, the perceived heavy hand of the federal government would become a lighter touch under President Obama's plan to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law. But for some, the consequences of academic failure would stiffen considerably.

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The proposal to update what is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act divides nearly 100,000 schools into three categories: those rewarded for high performance; those challenged to overcome major academic struggles; and the huge number in the middle that are pushed to improve but given freedom to innovate. The latter group could amount to 75 percent of schools.

"For the vast majority of schools, we're going to get rid of prescriptive interventions," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Monday.

Duncan will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to start selling the administration's 41-page blueprint to the House and Senate education committees. The 2002 law, a signature initiative of President George W. Bush's, is overdue for reauthorization. But there is no certainty that Congress will act before the midterm elections.

Under the law, public schools are rated every year on progress toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Students are tested in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Schools that fall short of targets for two consecutive years face escalating potential consequences. The first is a mandate to offer transfers to a better school. The second is a mandate to offer tutoring.

The two mandates would become options under Obama's proposal. And the label of "failing to make adequate yearly progress" would vanish. In the 2008-09 school year, according to the Center on Education Policy, about one-third of schools nationwide fell short of what is known as "AYP." The center reported that 74 percent missed AYP in the District, 29 percent in Virginia and 23 percent in Maryland.

Mike Petrilli, a former Bush education official and analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called the Obama plan realistic. "It uses federal power to give political cover to reformers at the state and local level, but focuses most of its muscle . . . on a handful of the worst schools," Petrilli wrote in a blog post. He described the No Child law's sanctions as "a bust."

Education Department officials said that 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools would face radical interventions, including replacing the principal in nearly all cases. Those are tougher remedies than current law provides. The next-lowest 5 percent would be placed on watch lists and forced to take major steps. Another 5 percent with wide gaps in achievement between disadvantaged and better-off students would be required to take action to narrow them.

The most successful schools, Duncan said, would be rewarded with funding and more flexibility and autonomy. He said that group would include schools with high test scores and those that make large gains -- at least 10 percent of schools in each state, officials said.

As for the large middle group, he said, the government would take a largely hands-off approach. If they started to stagnate, Duncan said, they would get more scrutiny. "Carrots and sticks across the board," he said. "Rewards and consequences."

How this switch would play out in the near future is unclear. Without congressional action this year, Duncan conceivably could take administrative steps toward flexibility. His predecessor, Margaret Spellings, did that frequently in the Bush years.

Even if Congress revises the law, changing accountability systems in 50 states and the District would take years. Separately, there is a state-led move to shift academic standards toward a new goal for all students to graduate ready for college and the workforce. That would mean new curriculum and new tests.

Obama's plan leapfrogs over the tough question of whether to eliminate the 2014 goal of proficiency for all. In essence, the administration is leaving that up to Congress. Instead, Obama points toward a new goal that would take effect in stages over the next few years: for all students to meet "college- and career-ready" standards by 2020.

Teachers unions criticize the plan as relying too much on testing to fix schools and not enough on helping educators. David A. Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, said Obama had embraced "the same one-size-fits-all and flawed foundation" of the Bush-era law "that has unfairly and unproductively used test scores to label public schools."


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