Changes Proposed for No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind act expires this year and Congress is soon expected to renew the 5-year-old federal education law. Christopher Edley, a member of the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind, talks about recommended changes with Farai Chideya. The bipartisan panel recently released 75 recommendations on revamping the law.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Congress will likely renew the five-year-old No Child Left Behind Act soon. But before it gets another green light, President Bush says he wants a makeover. He's proposing more scholarships, grants, transfer options and charter schools. Meantime, students, parents and educators across the country are also pushing their ideas on how to revamp No Child Left Behind.

The recommendations were developed into a 230-page bi-partisan report by the Aspen Institute. The 15-member panel, led by former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, released its proposals last week. Christopher Edley, dean and professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, was on the commission.

Professor Edley, good to have you back on the program.

Professor CHRISTOPHER EDLEY (Dean, University of California Berkeley School of Law): Thanks so much, Farai. Thanks for doing this topic.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well it's extremely important. And we on our show have had people who are huge fans of No Child Left Behind and huge detractors of it. What were the recommendations? There were 75, let me say.

Prof. EDLEY: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Well, just give us a couple of highlights. We don't have time for the full 75.

Prof. EDLEY: Sure, let me try to give you four or five quite quickly. One - actually, the very first out-of-the-box because teachers are fundamental in so many respects. Second only perhaps to parents. We recommend moving beyond what No Child Left Behind currently says about highly qualified teachers, a process that focuses on the credentials, if you will, of teachers that go into these schools, to what we call highly qualified and effective teachers.

So it's not enough to just have the credentials. We want to make sure that teachers are, over a period of years - five years - able to demonstrate at least some capacity to improve the achievement levels of the students that they're teaching.

In other words, by looking at not just the test scores, but also the evaluation of the teachers given by principals or otherwise that these teachers are effective. If they're not effective after several years of examining their performance, then we simply say you can no longer teach in a school that's receiving federal funds, the Title I funds that are targeted on poor and at-risk children. You can teach somewhere else in the district, but just not in a Title I one school. So that's one, highly qualified and effective teachers.

A second major thing we do is move from just looking at whether or not schools are achieving adequate yearly progress in advancing students to its proficiency, but actually giving credit to schools for improving students who are low performing but not necessarily getting them across that threshold of proficiency. This is what's called in the business growth models.

So the idea here is to reward, to recognize schools that are making important gains in listing the achievements of their students, even if they're not yet at the point where all of the students are getting across the line towards proficiency. They've eventually got to get to proficiency, but not immediately.

CHIDEYA: Let me interrupt you briefly and just say these are recommendations. How realistic is it to expect that some or any of them will be taken into account?

Prof. EDLEY: Well, you know, with 75 we're going to luck out on a few of them, but I am actually extremely optimistic. When we rolled out these recommendations on Capitol Hill last week, we were greeted by the bipartisan leadership of the key committees in both the Senate and the House. And they said, Republicans and Democrats alike, that they're talking this very seriously and that they think a great number of these recommendations are going to make their way into law.

What's interesting to me is that on our commission that was co-chaired, as you said, by Tommy Thompson and also by Democrat - former governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes - 74 out of the 75 recommendations were unanimous. This is an issue, and frankly, I think it's because in many respects No Child Left Behind is a civil right statute.

This is an issue on which we have impossibility of reaching across party lines and really having some consensus.

CHIDEYA: Well, this is - that raises the question - you have to say it's a teaser - 74 of 75 were unanimous, which one wasn't?

Prof. EDLEY: Well, I think the one about looking at teachers. And I think that some of the teacher organizations, the national teachers' organizations, particularly the NEA, have been quite critical of many aspects of No Child Left Behind. And several of our recommendations - I have to say, I think our recommendations are quite balanced. For example, we are talking about moving towards a structure of voluntary national standards.

The states are, as the present statute permits, all over the board in deciding what they think of as proficiency. And you get huge variations. And frankly, several states have set that threshold of proficiency so low that you and I certainly wouldn't want to send our kids there and entrust it to the state that has set us the bar so low that they're not going to be prepared for the 21st century economy.

So we think it's important to try to create a national benchmark that wouldn't be mandatory, but at least it would provide a basis for citizens or parents to compare what their state is trying to do with some national benchmark for what it takes to succeed in the 21st century economy.

What we absolutely do not want to do - that this is so critical - what we cannot abandon is the breakthrough in No Child Left Behind of not only breaking down the data on student achievement and high school graduation and so forth to see how poor students, how minority students, how students with disability, how students who are English language learners, to see how these subgroups are doing, but to actually for the first time hold officials accountable for whether or not students in these subgroups are making progress.

That's what makes it a civil rights statute, and that's why it seems to me it's important that we not dilute the thrust of this statute at lifting student's achievement and holding adults accountable for that. But instead that we strengthen the statute, while at the same time putting more resources into it to help states and districts gain the capacity they need to meet the challenges.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dean Edley, that's all we have time for right now. But of course we'd love to have you back on as this evolves. Thank you so much.

Prof. EDLEY: Take care.

CHIDEYA: Christopher Edley is a member of the Aspen Institute's commission on No Child Left Behind. He's also dean and professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

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