Congress Considers Fixes to No Child Left Behind: Advocacy Groups Say Proposed Changes Won't Be Enough to Help Students Transfer out of Substandard Schools

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After approving a massive higher education bill in September, Congress is beginning to turn its attention to a chief element of President Bush's legacy: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Up for its required renewal, the law is prompting a wave of new ideas to give public schools more flexibility while not abandoning its focus on success for at-risk students.

"We didn't get it all right when we enacted No Child Left Behind," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the Committee on Education and Labor. Among other shortcomings, the law "is not fair, not flexible and not adequately funded."

But the laws commitment to accountability must not change, said Miller, who with lawmakers of both parties has unveiled a bipartisan "discussion draft" of potential changes to the law. These include:

* A "smarter" accountability system, based on more than one standardized test of student achievement and giving schools flexibility in setting goals based on past performance;

* Performance pay for principals and teachers and mentoring for new instructors;

* Partnerships with colleges, universities and businesses to develop new standards assessing students' readiness for college and careers, and;

* A Graduation Promise Act with new funding to improve the low-performing high schools that have the highest dropout rates.

As with most aspects involving NCLB, the path to reform is not easy. Teachers' unions have concerns about the performance pay, while experts at a recent hearing questioned whether a 'smarter' accountability system may get too complex to generate worthwhile information.

"There is a danger that in seeking to address every criticism of NCLB, the committee will make the laws accountability provisions so complex that many new opportunities will emerge to exploit the law's intricacies to undermine its core principles," said Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an independent education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

For other leaders, such as Reg Weaver, National Education Association president, changes in rules and regulations are unlikely to produce major change until the legislation also includes broad, well-funded policies to address achievement gaps and other challenges facing low-income children.

The draft "makes only minor tweaks in the divisive and dysfunctional law that parents, teachers and public schools have been saddled with these past five years," Weaver said. "The draft language is still too focused on high-stakes testing, punishments, the labeling of children and unfunded federal mandates. …

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