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OK, so the combat between beleaguered educators and government officials over the No Child Left Behind Act will not be left behind, but it will soon become less combative. Sections of the battle lines are softening, and because the law is slated for reauthorization in 2007, the national debate is poised to enter a round in which the question becomes not "Is NCLB good, or bad?" but "How can we make it better?"
Although the reauthorization is expected to take a couple years, educators and advocates are already seizing this time to design and promote revisions to the law in hopes of putting a bug in Congress's ear. For example, the National Education Association, a longtime critic of the rigidity and standardization the law has spawned, voted at its annual conference in July to push a package of changes to NCLB (not, as it turns out, to blow the whole darn thing out of the water). The national teachers' union has also joined a coalition of more than eighty organizations, ranging widely from the American Federation of School Administrators to the Children's Defense Fund to the National Conference of Black Mayors, to propose fourteen specific reforms around assessment, teacher development, school sanctions, and funding.
On the flip side, the federal government, too, is showing signs of flexibility. Policy specialists Daria Hall of the Education Trust and Scott Young of Communities for Quality Education -- two advocacy groups with differing views of NCLB -- say the Bush administration's consideration of using individual student growth as an accountability measure signals it's open to some change.
Fortunately, ideas for innovative approaches to the law are beginning to blossom. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for one, posits that the law would work well if only states used better metrics -- new measures of essential skills, such as critical thinking and media literacy, instead of decades-old arithmetic tests. Test what's most important for kids to learn (and that's skills, not content), reasons Ken Kay, president of the organization, and that's what schools will teach. The coalition of business and education leaders is working with West Virginia and North Carolina to create methods of measuring and promoting crucial skills, and Kay expects more states to join the effort this school year.
Of course, exactly what sort of legislation Congress ultimately approves is anyone's guess. But this much is certain: NCLB is here to stay, and the first-round fighting over how right or how wrong it is, is getting old. As reauthorization approaches, the stakeholders will lay down their swords (if not their pending lawsuits) and look for ways in which assessment and accountability can truly nurture education.
Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, describes for Edutopia staff writer Grace Rubenstein how NCLB could stimulate -- not squash -- young minds, if only we would ask the right questions. "In this country," Kay says, "we teach kids the same thing a hundred times, and on the hundred-and-first time, we try to measure their ability to remember what we told them the first hundred when in fact, in the twenty-first century, the skill is, are you able, as a student, to analyze and solve problems with material you've never seen before?"