Obama Looks To Overhaul 'No Child Left Behind'

The Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act ushered in sweeping changes to America's education system, but many argue it emphasizes testing over learning. NPR's Larry Abramson and Claudio Sanchez explain Obama's proposed education overhaul and assess his new Race to the Top initiative.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

While the budget presented yesterday by President Obama calls for a freeze on most non-defense spending, one notable exception is education. The proposed six percent increase there emphasizes both the importance of education to this administration and how the president and the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, hope to change it.

There would be an overhaul of the previous administration's signature law, No Child Left Behind, along with a new, competitive grants program called Race to the Top.

Critics charge the Bush administration's approach can now be seen as too rigid, too punitive, too intrusive with much too much emphasis on standardized tests. However, there's no shortage of skeptics on the Obama administration's definition of reform, either.

Two NPR reporters who have been covering education for years will join us in a moment. We want to hear from teachers, parents and school administrators today. What changes in federal law would make your school better? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, history teachers note the real story of the gladiator who led a slave rebellion against Rome, the Spartacus war. But first, NPR's Larry Abramson joins us here in Studio 3A, and Larry, thanks very much for coming in.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Hi, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And Claudio Sanchez is with us in Boston on a reporting assignment, the NPR education correspondent at the studios of member station WBUR, and Claudio, always good to have you on the program, too.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here.

CONAN: And Larry, let's start with you. What changes are being proposed?

ABRAMSON: Well, the budget, as you said, has some notable increases in it. Six percent is a big increase...

CONAN: Big jump, yeah.

ABRAMSON: ...he's basically proposing a flat budget, and the most important thing is where those increases are actually happening.

A lot of the traditional programs that try to compensate for poverty or for learning disabilities are actually staying flat, and given inflation, that's actually a cut in those budgets. But the president is proposing to add one and a half billion dollars to a program that many of us have heard quite a bit about. It's called Race to the Top, and this is a competitive grants program that is already handing out over $4 billion to states that submit applications and show that they have embraced the Obama administration's idea of education reform. And so basically if they fall in line, then they get a share of these federal dollars.

CONAN: So this is money with strings attached. That doesn't go automatically to everybody. They have to compete for it.

ABRAMSON: That's right. And a lot of education a lot of federal education funding has been formulaic in the past. That is, if you have so many poor people, you have so many non-English speakers, you get so-and-so many dollars.

Now, a lot of people have criticized that distribution method in the past. They're saying basically after 40 years of these programs, they've basically just become part of the status quo. You know, nobody they don't really help effect any kind of meaningful change.

And the Obama administration is more or less agreeing with that and saying if we want to reform schools, we need a new program on top of that, and only those states and school districts that get on board with the idea that we need to be doing something different will get some of this additional money.

CONAN: There's also, at the same time, that No Child Left Behind Act. That signature law of the Bush administration needs to be reauthorized, and obviously, that's got to go through Congress, but the administration has its plans there, too.

ABRAMSON: Right, and you know, people had sort of given up on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind four years ago because it was so contentious. There was a lot of disagreement about that. Now the administration is using the budget process, saying that they will put more money into the budget if Congress goes through the very laborious process of reauthorizing this law. And by reauthorizing, we basically mean rewriting.

The Obama administration is talking about rewriting that law along the lines of this Race to the Top Fund that I was talking about, saying that you have to embrace reform and that more of the federal money that we give out has to be directed toward reform, toward improving teaching, towards improving data collection, which is a really big term in education these days. And it shouldn't be just going out the door from Washington to any old school district out there.

CONAN: Well, what about some of those controversial aspects of No Child Left Behind, all the focus on standardized tests, all the every school must do better every year, all those kinds of things?

ABRAMSON: Well, the budget document, which isn't usually a policy document, really has a lot of detail about how the Obama administration wants to change those standards.

Now, the No Child Left Behind law set a goal of 2014 to have all students in this country proficient whatever that means proficient in math and reading. The Obama administration is saying we need to redefine that.

We need to say that students should be college- and career-ready. And they're talking about getting a group of experts together who are trying to come up with common educational standards across the country and using this new definition to say whether or not a student is ready to either go to a job or go to college. That should be the standard rather than using the standardized tests that have been used in the past.

And a lot of people have objected to that standard, and I think they're quite interested in seeing how this definition of college and career...

CONAN: Yeah, I was going to say, is it any less vague than proficient?

ABRAMSON: Right. It could be just another term that gets bandied about and criticized in five years. But for now, it's something new, and it's something to talk about, and that's exactly what the edu-blogosphere is doing these days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I didn't know there was an edu-blogosphere.

ABRAMSON: There is, yeah.

CONAN: But in any case, Claudio Sanchez, you're up there in Boston doing some reporting on reaction to these ideas. What are you hearing?

SANCHEZ: Well, it's really interesting to see this from the state's point of view. I mean, Massachusetts gets about a billion dollars in federal education funding, which is about eight percent of its overall budget for education. And Massachusetts stands out in another way. I mean, it gets it is widely known as a state that has really been pushing the envelope, has been trying to innovate, has been pushing reform more than the average state.

So a lot of folks here have really taken to this message that Obama is sending, which is: We're going to reward success. We're not just going to give you a formula-funding program that, you know, sends you money regardless of how your kids do.

In this case, I think, you know, what's driving this at least the acceptance in Massachusetts of this Obama take on No Child Left Behind is the fact that for once, schools that are really trying new things and are having some success are going to be rewarded. I mean, there's going to be money for them.

I think that there is a lot of carrot now, rather than a carrot and just a carrot and a stick.

CONAN: Well, the stick was if schools were failing, they would be closed.

SANCHEZ: That's right, and Massachusetts is a good example of some of the ironies in the No Child Left Behind Act. I mean, the more you raise your standards and the rigor of your exams and so forth, the more, of course, you essentially ended up with schools that were failing. And in Massachusetts, you know, you had a four percent increase in failing schools as defined by the federal government, and so you were being punished, really, for pushing kids to do better.

Now, I think there's a little bit less of a rigidity, as Larry was saying, to this attempt, anyway, to really get schools to try new things to get these kids to achieve higher.

CONAN: And is this are people telling you less intrusive than the system that we have now?

SANCHEZ: That's the big question. I'm not so sure that people here, even though they've, you know, they're pretty open-minded about this new approach, are I think they're as concerned about the federal intrusion.

But here's what's happened if we look at this from the big-picture point of view, and that is that, you know, it's a foregone conclusion that the federal role in education and school reform has I mean, it's happened. I don't think any as they say, the horse is out of the barn. Nobody can go back to the days when the feds had little or no interest or a role in fixing schools. But what I think Obama is doing is more surgical in some respect. This whole idea of competitiveness, competitive grants, this whole idea of rewarding success, I mean, these are relatively new things in that role that the feds are playing.

Something else that has happened, I think, is that the stars are aligned. We now have 48 states that have agreed to explore and discuss, at least, you know, this idea of a national set of standards and some way to really talk about the same thing rather than having 50 sets of standards and 50 kinds of tests out there.

And I think that's a big move towards eventually, what I guess people have been talking about for ages, and that is a national system, national policies that speak to really the most some of the most difficult problems that we face, especially in urban schools.

CONAN: And we'll get to your calls in just a moment, but Larry, this suggests that, well, you don't have to go along with this if you don't want the federal money. If you're going to embrace change, you can get some of these additional dollars, and a lot of these states are facing tremendous budget problems with education and everything else, but of course, if you don't embrace change, you're going to get effectively cut if these programs are flat...

ABRAMSON: Right. And some states, I think nine states, did not apply for Race to the Top funding in the first round. They have another opportunity to do that. And Texas actually said quite loudly, the governor said, you know, this is too much of a federal intrusion into our business. We don't want this money.

And I asked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, well, what are you going to do if these states decide not to participate? Are you just going to leave those children behind and say, well, sorry, you don't get to, you know, come to the table and have any cake? And he said, you know, given the financial situation in most states, everybody is going to get on board and do this.

But I think there is a danger, a perception that this could be unfair and that you could have states, especially the big states, that just become really good at grant writing and devote enough energy to getting the money and that the smaller and more-rural states would be left out.

CONAN: So we want to hear from school administrators, teachers, parents. How is this going to change what goes on in your school? What changes in the federal law would make your school better? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Audrey's(ph) on the line with us from Minneapolis.

AUDREY (Caller): Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm a former school board member, and I also was on the State School Board Association. So I really looked very closely into a lot of educational issues on my time in that capacity. And No Child Left Behind, one of the major problems that we've had here in the state of Minnesota, and I think other states, as well, is that No Child Left Behind looks at groups, and it compares one group to the next group rather than looking at individual progress made over a period of time.

And we have an awful lot of children who come into the school district, the school system, who are at varying levels. Early childhood education, of course, would make a great, big difference, and I think it would be much better to put more money into early childhood education because, for instance, sadly in our state, we still don't have a comprehensive, statewide, early-childhood funding mechanism. So I think that that would be the first thing that we should look at...

CONAN: We'll keep you on the line, Audrey, but I wanted to ask Larry Abramson in the brief time before we have a break: Does this reform address those issues?

ABRAMSON: You know, I don't know off the top of head how much money is in the federal budget for early childhood education. However, Secretary Duncan has been a big endorser of early childhood education, and I don't think there's any dispute there. But I don't think that you're going to see a huge increase in the federal contribution to that except for the fact that the federal government does fund Head Start, which is an important early childhood education for a lot of low-income people.

CONAN: Audrey, we're going to give you another bite at the apple and then bring in Claudio Sanchez, too, because I can hear him trying to get in on this issue, but we have to take a short break. So I'm going to put you on hold, okay?

AUDREY: All right.

CONAN: All right. We're talking with Larry Abramson and Claudio Sanchez, NPR reporters who cover education issues, about the proposed changes the Obama administration would like to see in the No Child Left Behind Act and what they mean by this Race to the Top. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

President Obama doesn't plan to eliminate No Child Left Behind, but he would like to revamp it and change the way schools are judged and financed. He's budgeted billions of extra dollars for it too.

Our focus today: what it might mean for your schools. We're talking with NPR's education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Larry Abramson. We want to hear from teachers, parents, school administrators. What changes in federal law would make your school better? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in via our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Audrey was with us on the line from Minneapolis and joins us again. Audrey?

AUDREY: Yes, I'm still here.

CONAN: Okay, did you have a follow-up question?

AUDREY: Well, I did also. In the Race to the Top, one of the things that I found very troubling was it sounded like that Obama was encouraging the development of charter schools and for-profit charter schools, and I find that very problematic because here in the state of Minnesota we have very liberal charter school policies, and we've had a record number of charter schools open.

There has been extremely poor oversight. Many of them have been closed due to administration problems. We saw some of the for-profits across the country, we saw an awful lot of top administrators taking very large salaries, and there was very little accountability.

These schools tend to be much more segregated than the regular you know, than regular public schools. So I think these are...

CONAN: Okay, let's see if we can get a response to that. Larry, when Secretary Duncan was on this program, he said he's in favor of good charter schools.

ABRAMSON: He's in favor of good charter schools, not bad charter schools, and yes, the administration is requiring, basically, states that want to apply for Race to the Top funding that they lift limits on charter schools, and a number of states have actually done that in pursuit of this money.

There's also language in the budget...

CONAN: But for-profit charter schools?

ABRAMSON: No, there's nothing in the budget that actually favors for-profit charter schools, to my knowledge, and most charter schools are not for profit, but there are some out there.

But you know, I think there is, you know, pretty strong language in the budget that indicates that the administration wants to keep fostering these schools. They see them as a place of innovation.

They still occupy you know, educate a relatively small percentage of American schoolchildren, but they are very controversial, and in a lot of places they have prompted accusations of lax oversight.

CONAN: And Claudio Sanchez, I heard you trying to get in earlier, just as we were trying to leave the last segment.

SANCHEZ: Well, let me just point out something about charter schools. The fact is that charter schools essentially are the creatures of the states. The states have, you know, legislation that dictate the terms under which you can open a charter school, what happens to the schools that are failing, if there is abuse, if there is or worse. I mean, these are things that the states have to deal with.

The only thing that the Obama people have said, as Larry just mentioned, is that we should just lift the caps and let the marketplace and the competition for charter schools and, you know, and let these schools thrive if they're good and let them fail if they're not good.

The other point that I think Audrey raised that I think is the term that's used out there to talk about how perhaps you can be more nuanced in evaluating the job that schools are doing, is the so-called growth model.

Now, the Bush administration, in its last year in power, were talking about growth models because of the outrage that so many schools that were actually doing a pretty decent job getting kids to improve, often by a lot over a year, period of a year or more, I mean these schools were not being recognized.

And so this so-called growth model says if you show us that a child has made significant progress, at least a year's worth of progress, in reading or math or science, then, you know, you shouldn't be punished, even if that progress still falls way short of the, you know, the standard that you've set.

So I think that this more flexible view of how schools will be evaluated, I mean, it's still you know, it's still up in the air. We don't know how it's going to work, whether people are still going to consider it intrusive, but the fact is that it's a new way of looking at schools and certainly not looking at them the way No Child Left Behind did.

CONAN: Audrey, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

AUDREY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Ronald, Ronald with us from Birmingham.

RONALD (Caller): First, No Child Left Behind has exposed the inherent inequities in education in this nation. To that extent, it has been a great success because it will not allow local schools nor a state school system to ignore the disabled and African-Americans and poverty.

The president does bring, with his proposal to make these applicants more competitive, by not just taking the money but not improving schools. However, we at Citizens for Better Schools has a concern with the growth model.

We recently did a study up in North Carolina, in Edgecombe County, where North Carolina uses this so-called growth model. There, however, that gap has not closed rapidly in Edgecombe. In fact, it's grown.

The danger with the growth model, when you just say let's look at a student rather than looking at across the board a school and a school system, is that what you may end up with is only improved (technical difficulties) in essence in terms of the racial academic gap that exists in this country. That is not tolerable, it is not acceptable, and the law must be enforced.

We didn't do much enforcement with No Child Left Behind. We had to do it in Birmingham when they would not allow our students, who did not make a (unintelligible) to transfer out of failing schools to a better-performing school, and the solution for all those who are opposed to charter schools is real simple.

The president say take the lowest five percent, let them have charter schools, but if you're opposed to charter schools, improve your schools and you won't have that risk. That's all you got to do. But the people who created this mess - the state superintendents, the local superintendents - don't have the ability to do it unless the federal government attaches these conditions to the funding, which we support.

CONAN: Are those conditions there, Larry?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, it's nice to hear it's rare to hear somebody speaking out in favor of No Child Left Behind. The brand has been so tarnished that you seldom hear the Obama administration even uttering those words anymore.

And I think, yes, I think this is an interesting problem that even though everybody favors having these firm standards, the idea of enforcement of this law has been almost impossible, basically going out and saying, well, if a school is failing, we'll just shut it down and what? Where are you going to send your kids?

The issue of kids transferring has been a very difficult one because many of the kids in neighborhoods that have failing schools have nowhere to go. They would have to go across town.

RONALD: Can I say this just to sort of wrap it up?

CONAN: Please do.

RONALD: Education is a distributive economic system. The more you learn, the more you earn, and there are primitive forces in this nation that don't want the poor and the African-Americans to at least be on an equal plane in order to have the similar opportunity that everyone else who has been in middle class and the affluent have, and until and unless this nation realizes, as they said in Brown vs. Board of Education, education is a ticket to social and economic mobility in this country, and this law has the potential, even with the president's plan, of growth models, but we must insist that they do not sit down and slowly improve. We must have accelerated learning, not this glacial movement with respect to academic achievement in our schools.

CONAN: Ronald, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

RONALD: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from John in Oklahoma City. I teach at one of those dropout factories. The RTTT, that's Race to the Top - and Larry, you're going to have to help me out here - ESEA?

ABRAMSON: That's the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the original name for No Child Left Behind, the big law.

CONAN: Could be helpful or even worse than No Child Left Behind. Use primitive bubble tests run through some primitive statistical engineering models, and there will be complete exodus of qualified teachers from neighborhood secondary schools like mine.

I've had more than 40 students killed or kill someone. We just had another kid murdered. How do you factor that into growth targets?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, there was originally a consideration of dangerous schools under No Child Left Behind. I don't think it gets a huge amount of attention anymore, and yes, there's a lot of concern that the Obama administration actually is going to end up ratcheting up the pressure on schools that are failing to spend more time preparing for tests, and that's a complaint I hear all the time.

CONAN: Claudio - and teachers are the biggest complainers about those tests.

SANCHEZ: That's right, and I think it's worth saying here, and I think our previous caller kind of, you know, pointed out that this is fundamentally, as Secretary of Education Duncan and Mr.´┐ŻObama himself have said, this is really the civil rights, you know, issue of our day. This is an issue about getting kids who have been neglected, have been forgotten, have been warehoused. This is a chance for this country to do the right thing, to fulfill the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education.

The issue of teaching, however, is going to be central to that. I mean, in tackling teacher quality, the administration is really changing, I think, the landscape, the school-reform landscape, as well as the focus of federal education funding.

It's shifting dramatically by saying, you know, we you know, the jargon of No Child Left Behind was teacher quality. Now it's become teacher effectiveness, and there's a lot of money there for states to examine and re-examine and rethink how they train teachers, how they create those pipelines to attract the best teachers, the most talented teachers, and I think that in the end, more than class size, more than, you know, the latest pedagogy on how to teach math or science, I think that the quality and the effectiveness of that teacher is going to be an enormous lynchpin to the rest of where this administration goes with school reform, because I think that's going to be the key.

CONAN: Let me ask you both a sensitive political question, and that is one aspect of No Child Left Behind was to make it easier for school systems to fire teachers. A lot of union contracts made it almost impossible to get rid of teachers in a lot of places. Unions were among the president's biggest supporters in that last election. Larry, does this proposed reforms address the issue of a - well, how we get rid of teachers we can't get rid of?

ABRAMSON: It doesn't directly. I mean - I think, you know, Claudio was saying that the stars maybe aligned for reauthorization of this law. One of the things that's become a law, and that the unions have moved into line more. The head of the American Federation of Teachers, couple of weeks ago, sort of, made an important speech that said that she was more comfortable with the language that was being used that said that teachers would be judged according to the performance of their students.

So, the unions, I think, have endorsed some of these basic ideas more, but as Claudio and I were talking about yesterday, each of these reforms has to be negotiated into an individual contract between a local union and their school district. So, whatever broad position statements the unions take about what is or isn't acceptable, nationally, it gets really complicated when it amounts to, you know, the Tuscaloosa school board, figuring out how they're going to be compensate or fire their teachers. And I don't think Barack Obama or Arne Duncan are going to be in the room trying to help him hammer that agreement out.

CONAN: And - go ahead, go ahead.

SANCHEZ: Neal, if I may just jump in for a second. You know, Secretary Duncan made a point the other day, in talking about, you know, the president's budget for education. He said that 600 local teachers' unions had pretty much looked at Race For The Top, and what the administration was doing with the No Child Left Behind, and had pretty much agreed or endorsed some of the ideas that the administration was pushing.

What it didn't say, of course, is that the rank and file, really - and we're talking about a lot of other local units and many, many teachers -are very, very skeptical. I think that there was a lot of potential in this - in what the president has proposed, both in terms of time teach -students' test scores and performance to teacher evaluations or even time paid to the way kids - a teacher's students do on tests.

That has the potential for a lot more teacher bashing, more than under No Child Left Behind. And that, of course, was one of big undoing of No Child Left Behind. Teachers who said were being blamed for things that we have no control over. We're not being given the resources. Now, the Obama administration is saying, well, you know, we're not going to evaluate you based on how your students do, and that has the potential for, again, to, of course, to blow up in Mr. Obama's face.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Larry Abramson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Jim(ph). And Jim is calling from Grand Haven, Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Hi. I'm - like you said, I'm from Michigan. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: I'm asking because in Michigan, of course, with our economy, a lot of districts do not have a lot of resources. And I was wondering if it -if this might become, kind of, a case of the rich getting richer, in terms of districts who have resources being able to come up with results that will receive money for good behavior. And I was wondering if I could just ask this about whether this proposal by Obama is favoring results or is also favoring proposals.

CONAN: And you were talking about grant writers (unintelligible).

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, they're proposals right now, and they're supposed to be based on past success and things that the district has done. I mean, first of all, the first grants are going to go out to states, which will then have to distribute the money equally among the districts and come up with a formula for making sure that school districts that don't really need anymore money, you know, end up getting a whole bunch of extra pork.

But, you know, I don't think you're going to see a lot of wealthy school district's getting huge amounts of extra money. I think that you might see - you know, most districts have schools of varying quality within them. And I think that the goal of the administration is to try to share the successful strategies that are being used in schools, in one district schools from another district, and trying to share that information and turn this into more of a professional endeavor where we try to come up with best practices. You know, there's a lot of talk about...

CONAN: Right.

ABRAMSON: ...using like the medical model where, you know, people come with the best of way of treating a disease, where you come up with the best way of treating a student who has certain difficulties and trying to make this more of a scientific process using this money.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jim. Let's go next to Ethel(ph). And Ethel is with us from Baton Rouge.

ETHEL (Caller): Yes. I'm a former teacher and I taught in whats termed underachieving schools. And I would like to say that what the schools need is not less money, but more money in order to improve. I would like to suggest that people read books such as Savage Inequalities. I would also like to point out that students who were - who's on grade level need more individual attention. They need smaller classes so the teacher can give individual attention.

And I would like to think that - point out that there needs to be more focus on helping the family. There are many families struggling with poverty in these schools. They have inadequate housing. Some of the children don't have adequate clothing. Some families have other problems such alcoholism and drug abuse. Sometimes...

CONAN: And, Ethel, I don't mean to cut you off, it's just - we're running out of time and I want to give Claudio a chance to address some of the issues that you've raised here.

SANCHEZ: Well, getting back to Larry's point, you know, this is not a question of the rich getting richer or the poor getting poorer. Clearly, Ethel in Baton Rouge has probably seen incredible disparities in the way schools are funded. But, again, this is a function of states. The states are the ones that decide, you know, how much or how the money for education is distributed. The feds...

CONAN: And they still have the lion's share of that money.

SANCHEZ: That's right. The feds have never really funded more than 12 percent of schools or the education funding in the state levels. And it's now an average of about eight to 10 percent. So that means that local and state legislators, lawmakers, policymakers are the ones who decide which schools are poor, which ones are not.

And again, if we're always - schools are still tied to property taxes. Well, that's the ultimate inadequacy of school funding where you rely on local wealth. And, you know, we know where kids that are really needy live, they live in poor neighborhoods, and the wealthy kids don't. And so that is what's reflected in the way schools are funded.

I think, though, the point is well taken. I mean, we really do need to address the impoverished school systems, kids who are really way behind, and do a lot more for these kids. And, you know, who knows, it's still unknown whether this is going to be the way to do it...

CONAN: Claudio...

SANCHEZ: ...with this new take by Obama.

CONAN: Claudio Sanchez, NPR education correspondent, with us from WBUR, our member station in Boston. Larry Abramson, education correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks to you both.

When we come back, the real story of Spartacus. This is NPR News.

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