Sen. Alexander proposes changes to No Child Left Behind

Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia are two members of a group of Republican U.S. senators who are sponsoring legislation to change the No Child Left Behind law.

The legislation would remove the Adequate Yearly Progress provision of the law that mandated annual progress in each of the 100,000-plus public school districts in the United States.

During a conference call on Wednesday morning, Sept. 14, Alexander and Isakson, as well as Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, talked about the bill they planned to introduce on Thursday, Sept. 15.

“The principle effect of the bill will be for the nation’s 100,000 public schools to end federal mandates with the federal government deciding which schools are succeeding or failing,” Alexander said. “The reason we thought this needs to be done is that it is time to transfer responsibility back to the states and cities. As most of you know, 44 states have adopted common core academic standards. Our proposal would leave in place the principle contribution of No Child Left Behind -- the report cards on schools.”

Isakson was a member of the U.S. House in 2001 and was one of the members who worked on No Child Left Behind legislation.

“We knew when we worked on it, with regard to AYP, that it was just a matter of time before AYP would be harder to achieve. We have more school categorized ‘In need of improvement,’ when in fact, they’ve been improving dramatically,” he said.

Isakson said when he and the other lawmakers crafted the original No Child Left Behind law, they developed AYP and created transparency and individual assessments of students as a mechanism that put pressure on schools to perform and improve.

“AYP benchmarks are based on last year’s improvements, so AYP became more and more difficult because you have less wiggle room at the top,” he said. “It would put too many schools in a ‘Needs Improvement’ category. In this legislation, we would leave in place the assessment and transparency but change AYP to where you no longer have it.”

Isakson said in turn, the focus would become helping the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. “That is where you would put federal funds,” he said.

Isakson said one problem with the original No Child Left Behind law was that under the special education requirements for testing, only 2 percent were waived for cognitive disability. “We’re changing that to allow schools to determine the assessment model developed for special needs students. It will focus on children and give systems the flexibility they need to assess special needs kids,” he said.

Kirk said this senate bill is a companion legislation to charter school legislation that passed the U.S. House on Monday.

Kirk said the No. 1 issue Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has currently is that he disagrees with a majority of teachers in his city in regards to charter schools. “Probably the No. 1 issue with Mayor Rahm Emanuel is his effort to broaden educational efforts for children in Chicago,” Kirk said. “About 85 percent of people in Chicago are with the mayor. Our charter school bill passed, and we think this is companion legislation. We hope we can move from 10 percent to 50 percent of children in charter schools in Chicago with federal help.”

Alexander said the substantial, realistic goal of their legislation is getting rid of AYP and expanding charter schools. The senator said the major area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is whether or not to have, in an effect, a national school board that defines evaluations for teacher and principal across the country. “Our legislation will encourage states to create principal and teacher evaluations related to student achievement,” Alexander said. “I don’t want Washington saying you have to do it this way or that.”

Alexander said he hopes this legislation is law by the end of the year. “Many of the ideas in our bills are consistent with (Education Secretary) Duncan’s and President Obama. We will work in a bi-partisan way and have been able to complete it in the Senate. Since the House passed their first bill on charter schools, we thought we needed to move ahead,” Alexander said.

Recently Gov. Bill Haslam appealed to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for a waiver regarding No Child Left Behind requirements. Alexander said passage of these bills would eliminate the need for waivers. “It would give Gov. Haslam and local school districts the ability to make accountability decisions for themselves, but I’ve encouraged Gov. Haslam to go ahead with applying for the waiver,” Alexander said. “My guess is the secretary would like the proposals Gov. Haslam has for Tennessee. I want a waiver process in Washington based on state requirements, not on Washington mandates.”

Alexander said the No Child Left Behind law will still have school report cards. “Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, 40 states have agreed on common core academic standards and are working on accountability systems,” he said. “It is time, as Senator Isakson has said, to move to the next step.”

Isakson said he is proud of what the original No Child Left Behind law did. “No Child Left Behind forced schools to assess every student and have transparency. That is ultimately why it improved the lives of children on free and reduced waivers and English as a Second Language students,” he said.

When asked what motivation the other 95 percent of performing schools have when the majority of federal funds are going to the lowest five percent of schools, Alexander said the schools will be motivated by the higher, more rigorous standards the state recently adopted. “Tennessee has new academic standards, and they are much higher than they were before. You have an aggressive governor and state, and you have leadership on teacher and principal evaluations that other states don’t have,” he said. “The responsibility is moving back to parents, teachers and community and less on Washington.”

Alexander said that, while the intent of the law was admirable when the AYP stipulation was included, it created an unattainable goal because all students are not equal. “Eventually every school in every state in the whole United States would be on the list because every child could not be 100 percent on grade level by 2014,” he said.

Blount County Schools director Rob Britt said he believes that educators should be held to a high accountability level. “However, our goals for student performance should always be realistic,” Britt said. “So I think this is a good direction to go in because current NCLB goals are not realistic, especially when you’re talking about rigorous curriculum and high cut score determining mastery of content. I welcome this news. That being said, I think school systems in the state of Tennessee should be held accountable by how well we grow students from year-to-year, measured by value-added gains and certainly as we work toward accomplishing our First to the Top goals as well.”

Britt said NCLB and AYP are very punitive. “We don’t need that in our educational system. Schools showing improvement should be encouraged and supported through investing in them, not punishing them,” he said.

Stephanie Thompson, director of Maryville City Schools, said the state commissioner of education Kevin Huffman is confident the federal government would grant the state a waiver regarding NCLB requirements. Thompson said she likes the idea of substituting AYP with Tennessee Value-Added Assessment. “Tennessee has submitted to the federal Department of Education an appeal to not use AYP, but to use a growth model - the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment,” she said.

Thompson said that as students move from one year to next, they take standardized tests. “It measures whether they have grown one year or more, and schools would be judged on that. It is a growth model.”

Brian Bell, City of Alcoa schools director, said Race to the Top goals for the state’s schools are more attainable, and they don’t necessarily penalize good schools. “The problem with AYP is, when one subgroup doesn’t meet a benchmark, it penalizes the whole school and completely masks the good things going on in that school,” he said. “They label an entire school as a target school and the public just knows the school as a target school that didn’t meet a benchmark, no matter what other excellence is going on.”

Bell said removing AYP from the equation doesn’t let school teachers off the hook from being accountable for how well students learn. “I think our Race to the Top goals do have teeth in them because we are accountable to the Commissioner of Education,” Bell said. “He has spoken with almost every school system about our Race to the Top goals and where we are and how we are doing on benchmarks. It is a much better accountability measure.”

Isakson said this legislation to change the No Child Left Behind law was a long time in coming. “We all know what the problems are and what changes need to be mandated,” he said. “It is just having the resolve to do it.”

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