Congress Gets an Earful on No Child Left Behind

Members of the House and Senate asked concerned citizens Tuesday for ideas on how to improve the No Child Left Behind education law — and they got an earful. The law is up for reauthorization this year, and Congress is focusing on how to improve teacher quality.

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Members of the House and the Senate today asked citizens for ideas on how to improve the No Child Left Behind education law, and they got an earful. The law is up for re-authorization this year. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, Congress is focusing on how to improve teacher quality.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Lawmakers are still in the information-gathering phase on how to improve the five-year-old education law. Former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes recommended that members of the House Senate hearing get started by taking a peek at a recent report by his No Child Left Behind commission.

Former Governor ROY BARNES (Democrat, Georgia): Our report contains specific and actionable recommendations, about 75.

ABRAMSON: Whoa, 75 recommendations to a law that has already generated thousands of pages of regulations. You could almost hear the collective oi vey in the room. Other witnesses kept their list more reasonable. One had eight, another proffered 14, but then during the hearing, each recommendation grew new ones: remake middle schools, provide universal pre-K. It's going to be a long process.

But most people do seem upset about one provision of the law, the requirement that teachers be highly qualified in the subject they teach. Barnes said right now, the law only recognizes what sorts of certificates a teacher has earned.

Former Gov. BARNES: We recommend that teachers who produce learning gains and receive a positive principal evaluation or peer review should be recognized as a highly effective teacher.

ABRAMSON: Many districts are already moving toward judging teachers by how much they improve achievement. Teachers' unions fear this means districts will basically hold members accountable for how kids do on standardized tests. Edward McElroy, head of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out that the original law already required good teachers to prove their worth.

Mr. EDWARD McELROY (American Federation of Teachers): Many have fulfilled the requirements since them. This is a credit to the people who teach in our schools. Five years later, proposals are being put forth that we require teachers to jump through an additional hoop to prove they are worthy of teaching our nation's children.

ABRAMSON: Lawmakers could just let the law continue in its current form for another year. Whether that should happen depends on your view of the past. There was no one from the Department of Education to state their view that the law is improving achievement. Senator Ted Kennedy, chair of the Senate Health and Education Committee, says that educators back home in Massachusetts tell him things are actually much worse.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The problems of poverty have become more intense than they were five years ago. The parents are more played out than they were five years ago in being able to participate. The school have deteriorated over the period of the five years ago.

ABRAMSON: For other lawmakers, that harsh reality may be reason to help some families escape from the public education system. Buck McKeon, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, used the hearing to introduce legislation that would create scholarships, better known as vouchers, for children attending schools that are considered failing for five years. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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