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Minnesota Should Be Ready to Walk Away from the New NCLB

February 16, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The "No Child Left Behind" law is a failure in almost every respect. To its credit, it has called attention to the achievement gap. That's about the only good thing that can be said about the program - and even that comes with the caveat that NCLB did little to fix the problem.

The less remembered about NCLB, the better. That's why Congress will likely dump the name "No Child Left Behind" when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, perhaps as soon as this year.

Congress and the Obama administration will likely replace NCLB with a program akin to its recent Race to the Top program, in which states are encouraged to initiate reforms backed up by federal grants.

NCLB's faults have been well documented and need not be picked over again. However, if there is one takeaway for Minnesotans from NCLB's failure, it is that we should be strong enough to walk away from an onerous program despite the amount of money the government offers.

Minnesota has stayed with NCLB for one reason: We need the money, and the fault for that doesn't lie in Wall Street or Washington D.C., but in St. Paul. Minnesota policymakers have financially starved schools - state aid has been cut by 14 percent since 2003. School districts have tried to make up that financial irresponsibility by asking voters to raise property taxes. This has met with mixed results and many schools do not have enough money to fund schools at an appropriate rate.

NCLB was the name given to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 when it was reauthorized in 2001 as one of President George W. Bush's signature domestic policy initiatives. The ESEA is the main formula for getting federal money to schools. Federal funds count for about 5 percent of a school district's budget and are usually apportioned by the number of poor students, special education students or those who don't speak English. They are used to provide extra services for these students.

NCLB is an especially draconian program. Put simply, states could either go with NCLB or lose money to help poor children. Minnesotans are not so heartless (yet so hard up for money) that they agreed to perform under NCLB's mandates.

Now President Obama's administration is faced with ESEA's reauthorization. His education leaders have signaled they intend to move away from NCLB's method of measuring schools using annual high stakes test scores toward gauging student progress by their readiness for college or a career.

Details remain at a minimum as Congress begins preparing for potential committee hearings. Some question how schools and students would be assessed? How would career readiness be defined? What sanctions or interventions would be employed for schools that fail these goals?

Meanwhile, others laud the idea, saying it will create more realistic expectations for teachers and schools. Rewarding success is always a better method than punishing failure, which was at the core of NCLB.

NCLB has been criticized because it allows states to "dummy down" their standards to reach NCLB goals. Obama's team hopes to right this flaw by requiring states to adopt standards for college and career readiness and align assessments toward those standards.

The push for college and career readiness standards will likely piggyback on existing programs such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, in which 48 states are creating common, rigorous standards. Also, the federal Department of Education has directed $350 million in economic stimulus money toward grants to states to develop better, more uniform assessments.

While Obama's take on ESEA will likely establish a definition of teacher and school leader effectiveness based on how well students perform on standardized tests, Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, claims it will only be a part of the new ESEA. Schools would also be asked to track other measures, including student growth, high school graduation and college-enrollment rates.

In addition, Obama hopes to reward districts that have made significant progress in boosting student achievement with a $1 billion budget amendment that would include new money for Title I grants. The amendment would also call for new money to help states develop assessments and an increase for after-school programs.

While the goal of higher standards is crucial to our nation's educational health and using college and career readiness as the measure of our success is as good a measure as any, many questions remain and many nuances have yet to be developed.

Like many of the ideas that come out of Washington, these new ones have a dose of sugar as well as salt. The only thing certain is that the bill will change dramatically between now and any reauthorization.

When the details of the ESEA reauthorization becomes solid, Minnesota must have the courage to take these standards for what they are, and if they don't improve the quality of education in the state - just as NCLB did not improve the quality of education in the state - then state leaders must walk away from these government mandates.

What is best for our children trumps what is best for our pocketbooks.

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