stephanie jones

Senator Tom Harkin submits a draft to overhaul NCLB – very different from Duncan’s approach

In Education Policy, NCLB on October 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

From the NY Times:

A senior Senate Democrat released a draft of a sprawling revision of the No Child Left Behind education law on Tuesday that would dismantle the provisions of the law that used standardized test scores in reading and math to label tens of thousands of public schools as failing.

Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg News

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, at the White House in February.

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The 865-page bill, filed by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate education committee, became the first comprehensive piece of legislation overhauling the law to reach either Congressional chamber since President George W. Bush signed it in 2002.

Mr. Harkin made his draft bill public 18 days after President Obama announced that he would use executive authority to waive the most onerous provisions of the law, because he had all but given up hope that Congress could fix the law’s flaws any time soon.

Like Mr. Obama’s waiver proposal, the Harkin bill would return to states some powers taken over by Washington under the Bush-era law, including the leeway to devise their own systems for holding schools accountable for student progress.

“We are moving into a partnership mode with states, rather than telling states you’ve got to do this and this and this,” Senator Harkin said in a call with reporters. The bill is a product of more than 10 months of negotiations with his committee’s ranking Republican, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Mr. Harkin said.

Mr. Harkin’s bill would keep the law’s requirements that states test students in reading and math every year in grades three through eight, and once in high school, and make the scores public.

But for about 9 of every 10 American schools, it would scrap the law’s federal system of accountability, under which schools must raise the proportion of students showing proficiency on the tests each year. That system has driven classroom teaching across the nation for a decade.

States would still face federal oversight for the worst-performing 5 percent of schools, as well as for the 5 percent of schools in each state with the widest achievement gap between minority and white students. Districts in charge of those schools could lose federal financing under the Harkin plan if they failed to raise their student achievement.

“Harkin’s bill would return control to the state departments of education and the local school districts, and they’re the ones that got us into the mess that No Child was designed to fix,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who headed the Department of Education’s research wing under President Bush. “Districts and states have not been effective in delivering quality education to children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so why should we think they’ll be effective this time around?”

Several advocacy groups for minority students and the disabled also criticized Mr. Harkin’s bill, and on similar grounds. By eliminating the law’s central accountability provisions, the bill would represent “a significant step backward,” returning the nation to the years before No Child’s passage, when many states did a slipshod job of promoting student achievement, they said.

Under the Harkin bill, “states would not have to set measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals,” six groups including the Education Trust, theChildren’s Defense Fund and the National Council of La Raza, said in a letter to Mr. Harkin on Tuesday. “Congress, parents and taxpayers would have no meaningful mechanism by which to hold schools, districts, or states accountable for improving student outcomes.”

Asked about that criticism, Mr. Harkin said that to round up backing for his bill from Republicans in his committee, he had been forced to make compromises.

“I’d like to have federal targets, but that’s one of the compromises,” he said. “I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

The chances of Mr. Harkin’s bill becoming law are murky, even if it were to gain Senate passage and evolve considerably as a result of Republican amendments. He said that he intends to open the bill up for amendments in his committee next week, and to get it to the Senate floor for consideration before Thanksgiving.

In the House, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the House education committee, is seeking to rewrite parts of the No Child law in a piecemeal process. One of Mr. Kline’s bills, promoting the growth of charter schools, passed the House on Sept. 13, but four others, including one dealing with teacher evaluations, face an uncertain future. The House leadership has appeared unwilling to move toward a full rewriting of the law, which could give Mr. Obama a domestic policy triumph going into an election year.

“If we get a good, bipartisan bill to the floor, that will be instructive to the House in terms of rewriting this legislation,” Mr. Harkin said.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2011, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Bill Would Overhaul No Child Left Behind.
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