Big Changes on Tap for 'No Child Left Behind'

The Bush administration's signature education policy is up for reauthorization. Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews reports on the major changes pending.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

All right, say this out loud just for fun. How about that No Child Left Behind Act? It can actually be a kind of fun, because it can elicit these great nods of approval or some really serious scowls from your listener - maybe a yawn or two, if we're honest. It was six years ago this week that a federal law requiring accountability, meeting certain test scores of each school district -well, it was signed into law.

Now, the program was to be reauthorized by Congress in 2007, pending some major changes. Well, that didn't happen. And the NCLB is still up for renewal this year. Now the Department of Education touts the law saying it narrowed the achievement gap, and reading and math scores are higher.

But the nation's largest teacher union, among others, has gone as far to sue the DOE over in the act and claims it can punish a whole school if a few students don't perform well. And those in the middle say it is chock-full of good and bad ideas.

Jay Mathews is an education reporter for the Washington Post, joining us this morning. Hey, Jay.

Mr. JAY MATTHEWS (Journalist, Washington Post): Hey, Alison and Mike. How are you doing?

STEWART: Good.

PESCA: Great.

STEWART: So a little back story first. This started out way back as The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, then retooled as No Child Left Behind. Can you put it in context for us? What was going on six years ago that this became such a priority for President Bush?

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, you've really done your homework. This is really the biggest thing legislatively that happened during the Bush administration. It's the only time where all the stars aligned. Both parties wanted something to work in education. Both of the presidential candidates in 2000 had proposed a similar plan. Everybody got together and put together what is, by far, the biggest federal intervention in education in 40 years.

The problem is once you do that, it's hard to get the stars aligned again for everybody to agree. So now we've got a big mess. Nobody's really sure where it's going to go. And I suspect although they'll keep trying to reauthorize this year, they'll have to wait for a new president before they get it ready together again.

STEWART: Well, what's holding it back? What's the most controversial - what are the most controversial parts of the act that have everybody at a logjam?

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, the critics, most unhappy with the fact that it forces schools to raise up every year the achievement levels of their students, even students like special ed students, or recently arrived kids from overseas who might have real severe learning problems.

And that the school can be - put on the needs improvement list just if one or two kids failed to pass the test. A lot of schools think that's unfair. And as the - each year, the standards get higher, the target you have to hit gets harder. So if they leave the law the way it is, which seems likely for the next couple of years, more and more schools every year are going to be put on the bad list, and that will - that's upsetting lots of educators.

STEWART: Let me break down to things - so if a school gets to put on the bad school list, what happens to the school?

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, it's - from - for a several years, that school is just - it's sort of a shaming exercise. They're on the bad list. Everybody knows it. The law assumes that people will do stuff to fix it. About four - in the first few years, that school has to provide tutoring to students after school who want it, and it has to let students who want to transfer to better schools do so. After three or four years, it gets to a point where the school, if it hasn't improved, can be - the staff can be fired and rehires. They can - the state can put in new leaders for the schools. They can sort of really shake up the school. But that has happened not very often.

PESCA: Jay, if you individually ask people about the different aspects of the act, do you get the impression that they would like it - like them individually? I mean, people would say, yeah, teachers should be qualified in their subject. And, yeah, we should make schools - make all their students accountable so they can have little pockets of, you know, really poorly-performing students. But it's just that when you add them all together, there's something for everyone to hate.

Mr. MATHEWS: Right. I think you put your fear on it. And the real political reality here is that getting rid of this act would be poison for anybody who tried to do it, because your opponent in the next election would say, gosh, he got rid of No Child Left Behind. You don't want our schools to be accountable? You don't want our kids to be able to have the best schools in the world? So it's - this act is with us to stay. They just have to get together. And it's going to take a new president who's got a policy before Congress and the president can get together to brew something that will change this act.

STEWART: Well usually, when there's log jam like this, someone starts a commission, and, by golly, they did.

PESCA: Wait. Is it a blue ribbon commission?

STEWART: It was a bipartisan commission…

PESCA: Oh, not bipartisan.

STEWART: …with two former governors, chairman of Intel, a for - a recent retired middle school teacher.

Mr. MATHEWS: You know, this new former governors need something to do, a little income coming in.

STEWART: So they had this commission. They came up with these 75 recommendations.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Right.

STEWART: So what happened to them?

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, I mean there's a great deal of conventional wisdom here. Everybody agrees that they've got to change the way they look at each school. So instead of measuring how this year's third grade did against last year's third grade - two different groups of kids - you measure how each kid improves over the year, what they call the growth model. That makes a lot of sense.

We've almost got the computers up to a place where we can do that. So we know that's going to happen pretty soon. And we also know that there ought to be more focus on training teachers, getting them up to speed, more money for that. There should be more - less of a hair trigger on the act, rather than having a school go on the bad list just because one or two kids missed a test, get a little more room there for schools to perhaps struggle but improve with their kids.

STEWART: So the nuts and bolts of it all, what happens if Congress doesn't reauthorize or renew the…

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, they say these - the folks who put it together, all the - were smart politicians, and they put a provision that will keep the bill going indefinitely until people get together and decide to make the provisions.

STEWART: So as is, it can just keep on going.

Mr. MATHEWS: Yeah. And it would probably be going in its current state for another two or three years. It usually takes that long for new administrations to get themselves together and put something together in terms of changing something this big. This is really the biggest bipartisan action taken by the U.S. government in the last eight years.

STEWART: Jay Mathews is education reporter for the Washington Post.

Thanks for walking us through this, Jay.

Mr. MATHEWS: You're welcome, Alison. Bye, Mike.

PESCA: Bye.

That shows a lot of conflicts in your bill when you have the automatic-renewal-because-it-won't-pass-again clause.

STEWART: Right.

PESCA: I need that for my contracts.

This big show of ours, it rolls on. Next up, it's hard to get married of you're gay. But it's even harder getting divorced. Find out why next on this, the BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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