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Duncan Lays Out Proposed NCLB Makeover, National Teachers Unions Take Dim View

By Jeff Hudson - March 18, 2010

Education Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the Obama administration’s proposed makeover of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) at a press conference on Monday – one of the opening volleys in the Administration’s long-awaited plan to revise the Bush Administration’s widely unpopular No Child Left Behind legislation.

Duncan said the Obama Administration proposes to phase out a number of provisions of No Child Left Behind. But some of the proposals Duncan outlined did not go down well with the leadership of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers – stakeholder groups that typically support Democratic administrations.

Duncan said “We hope to raise standards, we want to reward excellence and success and we want to increase local control and flexibility. We have got to get accountability right so that it drives improvement in student achievement, gives parents the information they need and identifies effective teachers and leaders.”

“In accountability we’re going to build around a meaningful goal, true college and career readiness. We’re going to reward schools that show the most growth and ability to close achievement gaps so we’ll have laser-like focus there. For the vast majority of schools we’re going to get rid of prescriptive intervention.”

“We’ll be giving them flexibility to define how they will meet their performance targets. Getting accountability right helps drive reform and accelerate student achievement. It ensures that students have a wide breadth of knowledge and are making progress towards a meaningful goal.”

“It gives schools the incentives to improve the achievement of all students, not just that tiny percent around that bubble who are close to getting to proficiency. It allows us to identify effective teachers and measure whether teacher preparation programs are working.”

“And we look forward to working in a bipartisan way with Congress. I will always give the previous administration credit for shining the spotlight on achievement gaps.”

Duncan also criticized the track record for the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation, saying “The previous law was too punitive. It was too prescriptive. It lowered the bar for students and too often narrowed the curriculum and we have to flip all of that. We have to raise the bar - high standards for all students, meaningful college and career ready standards.”

Duncan added, “We have to reward success, reward excellence and focus much more on growth. How much are students improving each year? We have to increase local flexibility and give great teachers, great principals a chance to innovate and hit the higher bar.”

To read the 45-page document “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” click here.

According to the Department of Education, the proposal includes these highlights:

--“Under the Obama administration's blueprint, state accountability systems will set a high bar of all students graduating from high school ready to succeed in college and careers. The accountability system also will recognize and reward high-poverty schools and districts that are showing improvement getting their students on this path, using measures of progress and growth.”

--“States and districts will identify and take rigorous actions in the lowest-performing schools. The administration has proposed a significant investment to help states and districts in these efforts.”

--“Under the ESEA blueprint, states and districts will continue to focus on the achievement gap by identifying and intervening in schools that are persistently failing to close those gaps. For other schools, states and districts would have flexibility to determine appropriate improvement and support options.”

The Obama Administration’s proposal did not draw a warm response from the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. That organization’s president, Dennis Van Roekel, said “We are disappointed by this first effort by the Administration to rectify the considerable problems in the current federal education law.”

“What excited educators about President Obama’s hopes and vision for education on the campaign trail has not made its way into this blueprint,” Van Roekel continued. “We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids.  Instead, the accountability system of this ‘blueprint’ still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers.  We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations.  Instead, the ‘blueprint’ requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario.  We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative.  Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration.”

“We know that it takes all stakeholders working together to improve our schools,” Van Roekel added. “The Administration’s plan leaves out students’ first teachers—their parents. There is no attempt in the ‘blueprint’ to support parents’ efforts to be more involved in their children’s education.

He concluded, “The National Education Association cannot support the Administration’s plan at this time.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the one million-member American Federation of Teachers, was no more encouraging. “It appears from our first review that despite some promising rhetoric, this blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent authority,” Weingarten said.  “For a law affecting millions of schoolchildren and their teachers, it just doesn’t make sense to have teachers — and teachers alone — bear the responsibility for school and student success.”

“Teachers are on the front lines, in the classroom and in the community, working day and night to help children learn. They should be empowered and supported—not scapegoated,” Weingarten added. “We are surprised and disappointed that the Obama administration proposed this as a starting point for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We will work to make this law, which is the lifeblood for millions of disadvantaged students, work for kids and their teachers. Our next step is to share this blueprint with teachers in America’s classrooms to elicit their opinions.”


(Sources: Department of Education, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

Editor’s Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.