Educators React to No Child Left Behind

Joel Packer, director of education policy and practice with the National Education Association, offers reaction from educators to recent proposed changes to No Child Left Behind.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we've got Joel Packer, who's been listening in. He's director of education policy and practice with the National Education Association. The NEA represents more than 2.5 million public school teachers and other education professionals. Mr. Packer, good to have you with us.

Mr. JOEL PACKER (Director of Education Policy and Practice, National Education Association): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So what's your initial reaction to what the commission member, Christopher Edley, said, particularly around teacher qualifications?

Mr. PACKER: We think that their report, while it has some good aspects to it -one of the ones he mentioned about allowing schools to measure student progress over time, so-called growth models are good ideas for this new highly qualified teacher proposal - we think that it's just too much additional federal mandates, too many new hoops for teachers to have to jump through.

We agree that teacher quality needs to be improved, but think the way to do that is through providing teachers with the tools and resources they need to be successful: things like mentoring programs for new teachers, professional development for all teachers, improving working conditions in schools. Things like that, as opposed to another one-size-fits-all federal definition.

CHIDEYA: I have to say I'm from a long line of teachers and educators on my mother's side of the family. And even some of them had said, you know what? We love the teachers union in some ways, but there's some bad teachers in these schools and they've got to go. Is that really the issue in terms of your opposition to some of these recommendations?

Mr. PACKER: Not at all. Our position to this particular recommendation is that it bases the entire evaluation of teachers on student test scores, based on statewide standardized tests. We don't think one test - statewide standardized tests - should be the sole basis of evaluating a teacher, the sole basis of evaluating a student, or the sole basis of evaluating a school. And we're concerned about this recommendation because the way it's set up by definition, every year it would designate 25 percent of all teachers as failures, as not meeting the standard. We don't think that's a fair or realistic way to go.

So again, as opposed to more mandates, we think we need more resources, technical assistance and support from the federal government, state government to improve teacher quality.

CHIDEYA: Now you've been with the NEA for over 20 years. You've focused on class size, civil rights, judicial nominations, regulatory reform. You have a bunch of different areas of expertise. So, bottom line, given your experience, what's the single most important change that should be made to No Child Left Behind?

Mr. PACKER: Sure. First, I'd say there's a growing chorus of voices that have raised concerns about the law. So this is not just the NEA. Back just last week, 10 Democratic senators wrote to Senator Kennedy, who's the chairman of Education Committee, raising very strong concerns about the law. There's a coalition we're part of that's 106 national groups that have raised concerns.

I think the biggest change is to reduce the focus on using, again, test scores as the sole basis of measurement and then using the results of those test scores really to label and punish schools. So what we're proposing is some common sense flexibility that you look at other measures of school quality and student success that you incorporate as the commission does, growth models over time, and that you reward success as opposed to sort of punishing failures.

CHIDEYA: Finally and briefly, Dean Edley framed this as a civil rights issue. What do you think about that? And if so, what needs to happen in order to ensure civil rights for different groups of color as well as for poor students?

Mr. PACKER: Sure. We support the principle of No Child Left Behind, one of the goals that closing the achievement gaps and ensuring that all students improve their academic achievement. And we support the requirement that the schools look at student test scores and other data by various subgroups of students. The problem is that No Child Behind is not really been accomplishing its own goals.

There was a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard that said it wasn't really closing achievement gaps and that, if anything, it was having a negative impact on schools that serve large numbers of minority children, poor children, disadvantaged children.

So again, what we think needs to be done is additional resources, programs that we've actually worked to close achievement gaps, like smaller class sizes. And we need to change the whole systems so that we're moving away from, again, focusing on two or three test scores, which has narrowed the curriculum in many, many schools, resulting in overemphasis on teaching to the test, actually increased problems with dropout rates.

So there's a whole range of programs that we think the federal government needs to put in to help these students succeed.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joel Packer, thank you so much.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Joel Packer heads education policy and practice with the National Education Association. He joined us from Washington, D.C.

And just ahead, voter IDs keep some minorities away from the polls, and white history month? One commentator tells you why it's a good idea.

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