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No Child Left Behind Act faces overhaul, battle
San Francisco Chronicle


September 11, 2007
Tuesday AM

WASHINGTON -- In 2002, two of Congress' liberal Democratic lions -- Rep. George Miller of California and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy -- stood behind President Bush as he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a law they promised would shine a bright light on the failures in America's public schools and kick-start reforms.

Five years later, Miller, now chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is still a believer. But after traveling the country -- listening to complaints from parents, teachers, school administrators and governors about the law's testing regime and stiff sanctions -- he now admits it needs fixing.

"We've learned a lot, and we shouldn't ignore that evidence," said Miller, who is leading the overhaul of the law in the House, which starts this week. "What we're trying to do in this reauthorization bill is to look for those changes to make this a smarter, fairer, better law."

Reform is coming to No Child Left Behind, but the question is what kind. Teachers unions, which bitterly oppose the law, are pushing to relax its rigid testing rules and penalties. Business groups, eager for better-educated workers, want to see the tough accountability measures preserved or expanded. Many states and local school districts are clamoring for more flexibility in implementing the law, which expires this year.

Miller is seeking a middle ground: He wants to keep the law's requirement of annual tests in reading and math for third- to eighth-graders and 10th-graders, but add other measurements -- such as percentage of kids in college-prep classes -- to help schools show they are meeting the law's demands to make yearly progress in student achievement.

The president, who sees the law as a crucial part of his legacy, has dug in his heels. Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, a fellow Texan who helped write the law, warned last week that Congress was preparing to weaken it.

"We are on the right track, we need to stay the course," Spellings said. "We don't need to water this law down or change directions now. It is a good and strong law that is reasonable, necessary and doable for our kids."

Policy experts say the changes aren't likely to be revolutionary. Miller and Kennedy, whose Senate Education Committee will take up the law later this fall, still believe the idea of setting high goals and demanding that schools achieve them is the right approach. But they now appear ready to revisit the details of the law.

"This bill is not a major overhaul, it's more of a correction," Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said of the draft bill that Miller and the panel's top Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, released late last month. "It is not an effort to throw standards-based reform overboard. ... It's trying to address what have been perceived to be the major problems of the law."

For many teachers, the mere mention of the words "No Child Left Behind" draws scorn. Many complain they now spend much of their time getting students ready for the tests. A survey by the Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 schools had cut instruction time for other subjects -- such as history, art and music -- to focus on reading and math.

"It narrows the curriculum," said Joel Packer, a policy manager for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "Particularly in reading, there is this increasingly strict curriculum being imposed that teachers feel doesn't treat them as professionals and is taking creativity out of the classroom."

Polls show that the public is also growing weary of the reliance on testing. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll in June found that 52 percent of public-school parents felt there was too much testing, up from 32 percent in 2002. And 75 percent of public-school parents said the focus on testing was leading teachers to teach to the test, not the subject matter.

Miller hopes to address the complaint by allowing states to use other factors to judge a school's improvement: graduation rates, rates of students taking Advanced Placement classes and going to college, as well as results from statewide exams on history, science, writing and other topics. But math and reading scores would still dominate, accounting for 85 percent of a school's index of yearly progress for elementary and middle schools and 75 percent for high schools.

Critics have attacked Miller's approach from both sides. Teachers unions and advocates for states and school boards say the proposal still relies too heavily on the two tests. But Spellings and business groups warn that it could create a confusing new accountability system for parents, which might allow some states or individual schools to rig the results.

"We're concerned that it may provide too many opportunities for schools to game the system and obscure the fact that students are not progressing toward reading and doing math at grade level," said Arthur Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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