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House Committee Holds Marathon Hearing on Draft NCLB Legislation

On September 10, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on draft legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) Act (P.L. 107-110), also known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The hearing allowed representatives from the education, business, research, and civil rights communities to comment on the draft reauthorization proposed by Chair George Miller (D-CA) and Ranking Member Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA).

Rep. Miller said, “We have known for decades that too many children particularly poor and minority children were being deprived of the opportunity of a decent education that could help them to lead more successful and gratifying lives. Six years ago, we finally came together on a bipartisan basis to do something about that.” Rep. Miller continued, “However, we didn’t get it all right when we enacted No Child Left Behind. In increasing numbers and with increasing urgency, the American people are telling us that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, not flexible, and not adequately funded. We will not waiver when it comes to the accountability goals and standards of the current law. That’s not negotiable. But we would be negligent, whether because of hubris or for other shortsighted reasons, to refuse to make significant improvements to the law improvements that are necessary for it to succeed as we intended in 2001 and 2002.”

“Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act is one of the greatest opportunities this committee has. It is also one of the greatest challenges,” said Rep. McKeon. He continued, “I have been clear from the outset of this process that my goal is to lend my support to a bipartisan bill that strengthens the law and maintains its core principles of accountability, flexibility, and parental choice. Any proposal that backs away from these principles will be met with my steadfast opposition.” Rep. McKeon added, “The concerns we have heard are valid, and I offer my assurances that they will not fall on deaf ears. In the coming weeks, as the committee finalizes legislation and prepares to move forward with its consideration, I will redouble my efforts to ensure that any bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act adheres to its core principles, builds on its strengths, improves its shortcomings, and produces even more results for students.”

In commenting on the draft bill, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, highlighted a key issue facing lawmakers as they reauthorize the NCLB Act: multiple measures of assessment. Dr. Darling-Hammond said, “The proposals in the reauthorization draft to permit states to use a broader set of assessments and to encourage the development and use of performance assessments are critical to creating a globally competitive curriculum in U.S. schools.” She noted that “the initial years of NCLB have discouraged the use and further development” of state and locally-administered performance assessments and “have narrowed the curriculum both in terms of the subjects and kinds of skills taught.” Dr. Darling-Hammond continued, “NCLB’s rapidly implemented requirement for every-child-every-year testing created large costs and administrative challenges that have caused some states to abandon their performance assessments for machine-scored, multiple choice tests that are less expensive to score and more easily satisfy the law.” She went on to say, “The provisions of the draft bill that allow states to develop and use [multiple forms of assessment and multiple indicators], and the requirements that these include graduation rates, are essential to creating the incentives for a world-class curriculum within a world-class education system that actually reduces the achievement gap while ensuring more and more students are well-educated.”

Andrea Messina, commissioner of the Aspen Institute Commission on No Child Left Behind, said, “It would be a cruel hoax if students, teachers, and principals did everything that NCLB asked of them and students still found themselves ill-prepared for success after high school…We appreciate that the committee has recognized this problem and has taken some initial steps toward addressing it in the draft. The commission agrees that states should review their standards in collaboration with their business and higher education communities. Colleges and businesses are acutely aware of what is necessary to succeed and should play a significant role in making sure that schools expect no less.” Ms. Messina added, “We also agree with the committee’s call for the creation of a common scale for making comparisons across states. However, we do not believe that these steps alone are enough. We also recommend the creation of model national standards and assessments using the widely respected existing NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] frameworks as a starting point. Once model national standards and assessments are developed, we recommend giving states three options: adopt the model national standards and assessments as their own for NCLB accountability purposes; build their own assessment instrument based on the model national standards; [or] maintain their existing standards and assessments.” Ms. Messina noted that under this system, the secretary of Education would issue an annual report that compares “the relative rigor and quality of the standards and assessments in states that choose options two and three to the national model using a common scale” and allows for accurate comparisons among the states.

James McPartland, principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University, focused his testimony on the draft bill’s recommendations for high school reform, which was not a part of the NCLB Act enacted in 2001. Dr. McPartland said, “This focus [on high schools] is a major advance in federal assistance to public schools serving high-poverty populations, because (one) it offers major support to a large group of needy students at the high school level, who have not previously had access to significant federal resources under NCLB, and (two) it follows the most recent powerful research on how to best direct assistance with the most promising interventions and the most effective accountability.” However, Dr. McPartland noted that modifications would help the draft legislation “better fit the true conditions of high schools,” saying, “[a] four-year reform implementation plan is needed for high schools, while a three-year plan will work for elementary schools. Four years fits high schools because reforms must set the foundation in the ninth grade, which will take four years to show full gains in graduation rates. Shorter plans will unfairly concentrate evaluations on students who have experienced only partial reforms with the key first year, and will ignore the time that high school staffs truly need to plan, implement, and refine comprehensive reforms.” Dr. McPartland added, “In the same vein, bill modifications to allow some students to use an additional year to earn graduation will deal with high school realities, but must be crafted to allow flexibility without giving unnecessary loopholes.”

Janet Bray, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), also commented on the legislation’s high school provisions, saying, “We are very pleased that your bill includes a new Graduation Promise Fund for high schools with the lowest graduation rates to support school-wide improvement activities. For far too long, NCLB has provided support primarily to elementary schools. Secondary schools have been ‘left behind’ and I believe that is one of the contributing reasons we see U.S. student performance stagnate and fall as these learners get closer to graduation.” Ms. Bray added, “In addition to the Graduation Promise Fund, ACTE commends you for including a new section in the legislation…focused on postsecondary and workplace readiness. This language provides funding incentives to states and localities to ensure vertical alignment from grade to grade and with what students should know in order to be successful in postsecondary education and the workplace.” She also urged the committee “to review what the draft bill includes in terms of guidance and career development. Links to career exploration help to provide relevancy and understanding about why core academic knowledge is so important for students’ future postsecondary and workforce aspirations. A cursory review of the draft legislation indicates more needs to be included in this area. I could only find one reference in the bill to ‘career counseling.’”

In discussing the draft bill’s potential effect on urban and minority school districts, Stephanie Jones, executive director of the National Urban League (NUL) Policy Institute, noted that, “The draft appears to move in the right direction [on addressing resources inequities in our schools] by proposing to close the comparability loophole that currently allows school districts to provide high-poverty schools with less state and local funding, which is measured largely through teacher salaries. It requires districts to attain equity in teacher distribution and to include this information on district report cards. Title I funds were intended to supplement those schools that had high numbers of disadvantaged students in order to provide ‘added’ support. The notion is that Title I would bring ‘additional’ monies to high poverty schools when operating from an equal funding base as measured by teacher salaries. Instead, many of these schools received fewer state and local dollars because districts used Title I funds to supplant rather than supplement [the schools].” Ms. Jones expressed concern with the draft bill’s requirement that all students be taught by teachers who ‘meet at least a minimum standard of qualification.’ She indicated that “There does not appear to be any provision for incentives outlined in the NUL’s recommendations for securing highly-qualified teachers and principals” and that too many “loopholes” exist for “districts to NOT meet the teacher quality requirements.”

“As this committee moves forward with reauthorization, we strongly urge that you resist any changes to the law that would undermine or reduce this fundamental focus [improving academic achievement for all students],” said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable. He continued, “At the same time, there are areas where NCLB needs improvement and expanded flexibility…For example, [the] BCSA [Business Coalition for Student Achievement] supports allowing states to implement well-designed growth models to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP). We also believe school districts should have the ability to target the most significant interventions (related to restructuring) to those schools that are the furthest behind in ensuring all of their students are proficient.” Mr. Castellani also noted that the “BCSA is concerned with language…that would allow academic assessments of reading or language arts to be given in a language other than English or another form until a student has attended school in the United States for five years, with the ability to grant an additional two years on a case-by-case basis. The impact of this provision would be to allow a fifth grader entering the United States for the first time never to be tested on an assessment that is written in English before graduating from high school. BCSA believes the current law provision that allows non-English assessments for the first three years with an additional two year extension on a case-by-case basis to be sufficient.”

In expressing concerns with the draft legislation’s possible effect on teachers, Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said, “We are gravely disappointed that the committee has released language in Title I and Title II that undermines educators’ collective bargaining rights. This is an unprecedented attack on a particular segment of the labor community the nation’s educators. Time and time again, our members in bargaining states don’t simply negotiate about money, they negotiate about the very conditions class sizes, professional development, collaborative planning time to name just a few [that] have a direct impact on students.” He added, “NEA cannot support federal programs voluntary or not that mandate pay for test scores as an element of any federal program. Teachers aren’t hired by the federal government; they are hired by school districts. As such, the terms and conditions of their employment must be negotiated between school districts and their employees. To attempt to enact any federal program that mandates a particular evaluation or compensation term of a contract would be an unprecedented infringement upon collective bargaining rights and protections…We are not able to support the Title I or Title II discussion draft as currently written. We are hopeful that the committee will take the time to get this right. In essence, we urge you not to rush to mark up a bill that would lead to yet another set of unintended consequences.”

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, also expressed concerns with the current draft: “Our comments on Title I address our specific concerns about the need to fix adequate yearly progress (AYP), a flawed accountability system that does not give credit to schools that started further behind but are making real progress not recognized under the law. Unfortunately, this discussion draft doesn’t fix AYP. It makes it more complex. We saw some provisions aimed at improving this part of current law, but in all candor, these changes do not go far enough and fail to fully address troubling aspects of current law.” Ms. Cortese also enumerated concerns with the proposed language on growth models, saying, “Everyone said we needed a growth model, but everyone had a different concept of what it meant. The committee’s charge is to propose a growth model that will work. And when we say ‘work,’ we don’t mean low standards and no accountability. Unfortunately, the growth model that is being proposed [in this bill] is, in reality, a trajectory model and does not fully give credit for the gains in student achievement that schools are making. This is clearly an area that needs more thought and work.”

David Brewer, III, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), said, “LAUSD is the second largest and arguably most diverse school district in the nation spanning 27 ethnically and economically diverse cities. More than 91 percent of the district’s 700,000 students are of color and 75 percent of our students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program. More than 40 percent of our students are English language learners, and of those, 94 percent speak Spanish as their native language.” Mr. Brewer indicated that the LAUSD is “pleased to see that the discussion draft reflects our recommendations regarding English language learners. We are particularly pleased that the draft makes improvement toward better measuring and teaching English language learners (ELL). By definition, an English language learner is not proficient in English. Therefore, as the numbers required to test ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ continue to climb, it will be virtually impossible for any school with a significant number of ELLs to make AYP. The proposed change recognizes that fact and merely allows a school to take credit for its successes.” Mr. Brewer added, “Moreover, we are also pleased to see that states would have to identify testing accommodations for ELLs and develop a written plan for how teachers will be prepared to utilize accommodations appropriately. The Miller/McKeon draft provision to continue to count ELLs for three years after reclassification is an important and much needed step forward.”

The committee also heard testimony from a number of other witnesses. Please click here for a complete witness list and witness testimony.

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