The Recommendations Are In: What Could Be Next for NCLB

A government panel releases its plans for improving NCLB.

March 9, 2007

What will come of them remains to be seen, but the recommendations announced today by a bipartisan panel give us the closest thing so far to a blueprint of what the new No Child Left Behind law will be like.

The Commission on No Child Left Behind unveiled its vision today with the backing of those who have the greatest power to rewrite the law: U.S. representatives George Miller and Howard "Buck" McKeon, both of California, and U.S. senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, the highest-ranking members of both parties on the education committees of the House and the Senate.

Most notably, the panel recommends tracking individual students' progress to assess how well schools are doing and establishing national guidelines for the academic standards states set -- two changes politicians and education groups have long advocated. Less anticipated were the conclusions that teachers' qualifications should be judged partly on how well their students perform and that principals should also meet certain benchmarks of effectiveness.

"Our work has uncovered shortcomings in both the implementation of the statute and in some tenets of the law itself," the panel wrote in its report. "We believe that to do better, the law must be dramatically improved, and our report outlines specific and actionable recommendations for establishing a high-achieving education system."

The five-year-old law is due for renewal this year -- an opportunity, many believe, to correct the flaws they see in it. One more crucial architect of the revised law, however, has yet to weigh in on the commission's conclusions: President Bush.

The fifteen-member commission, led by Tommy Thompson, former secretary of health and human services, and former Georgia governor Roy Barnes, issued its recommendations in full support of renewing NCLB and "in the spirit of maintaining the commitment to success for every child."

Kennedy vowed to take the report more seriously than past studies. "We on the Senate panel are going to work on these recommendations, we're going to respect them, and many of them are going to see light," he said.

Miller called the group's conclusions a "very, very important ingredient" in the law's revision.

The commission based its report on a series of public hearings and roundtable conversations with students, parents, educators, and policy makers across the country -- an effort Barnes said was critical to learning how the law affects people on the ground.

Its recommendations center on ensuring the effectiveness of teachers and principals, improving accountability measures, strengthening strategies for school improvement, raising academic standards in every state, and enhancing the quality and relevance of high school education.

In particular, Thompson said, the panelists heard frequent criticism that the current measure of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), used to determine schools' success, is a "blunt instrument" that fails to distinguish chronically poor schools from those closing in on proficiency. To remedy this fault, the panel recommends measuring individual students' progress over time and giving points for improvement, rather than comparing different groups of students from year to year, as the law does now.

Thompson condemned aspects of the current law that have allowed some states "to fudge" by setting inadequate standards that artificially inflated students' seeming success. The commission calls for the creation of model national standards, along with heavy public pressure -- but no mandate -- for states to adopt them. Thompson also asserted that school-restructuring efforts should entail deep, comprehensive reforms targeted at improving instruction.

Barnes, who advocates a "sea change" in how the law defines what makes a high-quality teacher, said the commission got the message that the current definitions "simply were not leveraging real quality in our classrooms. Instead, these requirement have become a paper chase that is more about compliance than about ensuring that our teachers have the skills to improve students' achievement."

The commission said teachers' qualifications should be measured not only by expertise in their subject matter but also through evaluations by their principals and assessments of student progress over time. It also urges lawmakers to mandate testing of twelfth graders in addition to tenth graders.

The panel's compass in drawing its conclusions was to consider only what is best for the students -- not the adults -- in schools, said Barnes. Apply that standard, he added, and "the answers are obvious."

Taken together, the recommendations will demand that states develop much more sophisticated data systems to monitor individual students' achievement over time.

Key recommendations include proposals in the following categories:

Teacher and principal effectiveness

  • Reenvision teacher quality with a new definition of Highly Qualified and Effective Teachers (HQET), requiring states to measure the performance of each teacher's students and further assessing teachers' effectiveness with evaluations by their principals.
  • Provide personally tailored professional development to teachers whose students do not show gains, and stop ineffective teachers from serving the neediest students, if they fail to improve with time.
  • Develop a definition of a Highly Effective Principal (HEP), based on licensure and demonstrated improvement in student achievement comparable to that of high-performing schools serving similar populations.
  • Require principals at Title 1 schools to meet this HEP standard, with a three-year grace period after each state establishes its definition.

Improved accountability

  • Allow states to include individual students' achievement growth in measurements of school progress, crediting schools for students who are on a trajectory to reaching proficiency within three years.
  • Limit to twenty students the minimum size of subgroups whose performance is separately assessed, so that sizable subgroups aren't discounted or obscured.
  • Establish means for states and the U.S. Department of Education to hear complaints from parents and others about schools that fail to meet the demands of NCLB.

Stronger school improvement

  • Demand that schools meeting achievement benchmarks open 10 percent of their seats to students who want to transfer from underperforming schools.
  • Require an annual independent audit of the amount of space available in each school, and mandate districts that physically cannot accommodate student transfers to provide tutoring and other added support.
  • Require districts to open enrollment multiple times a year for supplemental educational services, such as tutoring, and to clearly inform parents of the opportunity.
  • Ask schools in corrective action to choose a comprehensive set of strategies for improvement, rather than just one.
  • Allow each district to focus on improving just the lowest-performing 10 percent of its schools.
  • Double the federal budget for research on improving elementary schools and secondary schools.

High standards in all states

  • Add science to reading, language, and math as a mandatory subject in which to measure schools' performance.
  • Develop model national standards in reading and language arts, math, and science, based on the standards set out by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • In states that do not adopt the national model, assign the U.S. secretary of education to give parents periodic reports on how their state's standards match up to others.

Better, more relevant high schools

  • Require districts with many struggling high schools to enact comprehensive, districtwide plans for improvement.
  • Add state assessments in grade twelve to measure student progress through high school.

"I want to assure you that there will be a bipartisan effort on this," Enzi said. "We all have the same goal."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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