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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/19/2011

The case against NCLB reauthorization

By Valerie Strauss

This piece was written by Alexander Russo, a former Democratic Senate aide who writes the widely read "This Week In Education" blog.

By Alexander Russo
Ever notice that it's always Education Secretary Arne Duncan or the pointy-headed wonks talking about how bipartisan education is and how the conditions are (always) ripe for a speedy reauthorization of No Child Left Behind -- but rarely the White House or the education groups or the savvy political operators who actually know what they're talking about?

Truth is, there's no real consensus that now is a good time for a big push to redo the law and in fact it might be a particularly bad time that could lead to the dilution and erosion of the law's best elements.

Ask the most experienced Washington insider you know if now's the time for an NCLB revamp and see what she or he says. (Then ask if they've worked on the Hill or ever done a major reauthorization.) Meantime, here are some of the best reasons that I can think of to wait:

Really bad timing. There's no really good time to do a reauthorization except perhaps during the first year of a new administration when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party. Two good weeks of work during the lame duck don't change the midterm.

There's no real need. Other than tweaking the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency requirement, there's not much real-world need for an immediate revamp to the law. An annual yearly progress fix could be done in technical amendments, and a handful of other issues could be picked from the groups' regulatory relief wish list (more about that later).

It will attract the crazies (and Republicans). Once they realize that they can't repeal Obamacare and aren't willing to cap the debt ceiling, newly elected Republicans and longstanding Republican National Committee operatives will be looking for other sources of amusement and mischief. Remember that Republicans control the House, the Senate is a legislative free for all, and the 2012 campaign has already begun.

Obama and Duncan have already passed signature legislation. They created the $100 billion carve-out in the 2009 stimulus package, and Race to the Top fund, along with i3 and School Improvement Grants and edujobs, and funded the Common Core Standards initiative. Let's see value-added and removing charter caps and the Common Core standards work their magic before scaling them up or slapping a second round of reforms on top of the first one.

Missing out on new money. The big funding increases that came along with the creation of NCLB in 2002 would not appear if Congress revamped the law in 2011. There's no money. The focus in Congress is on cutting spending not increasing it.

Fanning anger on the left. In case you hadn't noticed it, there's a fierce debate going on within the Democratic Party about who's to blame for the current education system and how to address it best. The left is particularly angry right now and would be quick to attack Democrats who wanted to mend but not end NCLB (and add value-added to high-quality teachers efforts or eliminate charter caps nationally or...).

It makes complete sense that Duncan and his allies would want a reauthorization now. It would give them a chance to codify Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants before we find out what they will and won't actually accomplish. It would give Obama and Duncan something to do with themselves between now and 2013. And there's always the chance that awful things could happen to NCLB even without a reauthorization, via regulation or through an amendment to a spending bill.

But Duncan wanting reauthorization to be so, and making the case, isn't the same as it being a good idea or one with which others agree.

The worst-case scenario is that some of the strongest elements of the law -- making schools report disaggregated data, for example -- could get gutted. At the very least there should be some clear and honest discussion about whether a reauthorization is desirable.

Let's everyone put his or her best arguments on the table and see where we stand. Then, maybe, a reauthorization push.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 19, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  edujobs, elementary and secondary education act, nclb, nclb reauthorization, no child left behind, obama and school reform, president obama, race to the top, reauthorization esea, school reforms  
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Sounds like Alex knows what he's talking about. That's a refreshing rarity on this blog.

I especially like the possibility that, " annual yearly progress fix could be done in technical amendments," and proficiency for everyone by 2014 could also be amended.

NCLB has its problems, not least of which are the two issues raised above. HOWEVER, it formally acknowledged the achievement gap and keeps a close eye on our most at-risk cohorts.

I'd like to see the testing reduced but that would then put the onus back on teachers, who proved all too convincingly in the past, their judgments/grades/promotions/graduations were, at best controversial. In fact, if anyone remembers correctly, the invalidity of teacher grades were the driving force behind NCLB, so parents and taxpayers could find out how students/schools were actually performing.

Thank you Valerie, for a credible guest poster.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 19, 2011 7:43 AM | Report abuse

"NCLB has its problems, not least of which are the two issues raised above. HOWEVER, it formally acknowledged the achievement gap and keeps a close eye on our most at-risk cohorts."

I agree. Whatever the flaws of the various state tests themselves (and many of them are pretty lousy), the disaggregated numbers shine light on disparities in this country, especially in affluent schools that could in the past hide their weak minorities behind a large majority.

"In fact, if anyone remembers correctly, the invalidity of teacher grades were the driving force behind NCLB, so parents and taxpayers could find out how students/schools were actually performing."

That's a curious way to frame it. I don't know that NCLB was really designed to expose grading practices (urban grade inflation has been common knowledge for a long time now) so much as to be a stick to push student proficiency upward.

Also, I agree wholeheartedly that grade inflation is a serious problem, especially in urban areas, but it seems a little mean-spirited to imply that it is some sort of pernicious teacher conspiracy. Grade inflation occurs because of a variety of factors, including administrative and civic pressure to massage graduation rates, formalized social promotion policies (especially at younger grades), and yes, weak standards by teachers. The brutal reality is that teachers in urban areas have to make decisions -- do I hold up this group to high standards and potentially hold them all back for a year (and risk being fired) or promote them all when they aren't really up to the task? Tough questions, and ones NCLB isn't really designed to answer.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 19, 2011 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm tempted to contact Ron Paul to put a bug in his ear about reauthorizing NCLB. Knowing how he feels about all federal programs, perhaps he'll make dumping NCLB his cause celebre. The "unfunded mandates" mantra is playing really well these days....

Posted by: buckbuck11 | January 19, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

NCLB is too expensive as it is. Get rid of it and put something less expensive in its place.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 19, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

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