Friday, March 13, 2015


How not to fix No Child Left Behind

By Arne Duncan | EdSource Today |

Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits a San Francisco preschool.Lisa Fine/EdSource

Feb 5, 2015  ::  Mattilyn Gonzalez is a thriving student, who has earned straight A’s and a spot in an accelerated learning program at her middle school. Her parents, Orlando and Celine Gonzalez, trace that success back to a strong preschool program – so they were determined that their second daughter, Arianna, would get the same opportunities.

But when Celine lost her job as a retail bank manager, the Gonzalez family could no longer afford the $720 per month for Arianna to attend preschool. Fortunately, Arianna was able to attend, thanks to Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), a nonprofit supported by a federal early learning challenge grant to expand high-quality preschool opportunities. Today, Arianna reads ahead of grade level, and recently earned the title “Star Student of the Month.”

These are the kinds of opportunities every child in this country deserves – because quality preschool has been proven to help children get on a path to success, not just in school, but in life. Unfortunately, efforts to expand preschool and other educational opportunities could be at risk, amid a debate over renewing America’s most important education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Expanding opportunity is a core priority for the Obama administration.

This week, President Obama released his budget, which includes the Preschool for All proposal, investing $75 billion over 10 years to provide high-quality preschool programs for all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in every state. The budget also includes more than a $600 million increase for grants to encourage states to expand access to high-quality preschool.

And expanding opportunity is essential to our aims for a responsible reauthorization of the ESEA law.

ESEA stands as America’s statement that a high-quality education for every single child is a national interest, and a civil right. The law has boosted funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, put books in libraries, and helped ensure that minorities, students with disabilities, those learning English, those living in poverty, and others who have struggled would not slip through the cracks. While the attention NCLB brought to the needs of vulnerable student groups was valuable, its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators.

Since then, and especially over the last 15 years, amid a bipartisan agreement to focus strongly on students’ learning, progress has been significant. Since 2000, high school graduation rates, once stagnant, rose almost 10 percentage points, to an all-time high. A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be in college. Just since 2008, there are a million more black and Hispanic students in college.

These are meaningful steps toward the day every single child in this country – whether she woke up in a homeless shelter or a migrant laborers’ camp or a leafy suburb – has access to a solid education.

Yet Republicans in Congress have released a discussion draft of an ESEA bill that should worry anyone who believes that this entire nation has an interest in the quality of children’s education.

Few would question that No Child Left Behind – the most recent version of ESEA – needs to be replaced. While the attention NCLB brought to the needs of vulnerable student groups was valuable, its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators. It’s time for a new law.

“Republicans in Congress have released a discussion draft of an ESEA bill that should worry anyone who believes that this entire nation has an interest in the quality of children’s education.”

Recently, I laid out core ideas for a new law that ensures real opportunity. A reauthorized law must expand access to quality preschool so that families all across the country like the Gonzalezes can be assured that their children have every chance for a strong start in school and in life.

Early education is an area that enjoys widespread support from Republican and Democratic leaders alike.  Law enforcement officials, members of the clergy, military leaders, CEOs, parents, and educators almost universally agree that investing in early childhood education is a vital step toward securing the future success of our children and our nation. And the unmet demand for high-quality early learning is enormous. Here in Los Angeles County alone, there are more than 33,000 four-year olds who do not have any access to preschool.

A new law also must expand support and funding for schools and teachers. President Obama’s budget will call for $2.7 billion in new funding for ESEA, with offsets to ensure we don’t go back to taxpayers for a dime.

It must help to modernize teaching, through improved supports and preparation. And it must continue to enable parents, educators and communities to know what progress students are making – and ensure that where students are falling behind, and where schools fail students year after year, improvement will happen.

Knowing what progress students are making, in a useful way, means states need an annual statewide assessment. But we must ensure that the tests – and test preparation – don’t take excessive time away from classroom instruction. Great teaching, not test prep, is what engages students, and what leads to higher achievement.

There are a few questions we must ask ourselves as we decide the fate of this country’s education law – and our children’s educational opportunities.

Should we do more to ensure that all families have access to quality preschool? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

After years of progress, do we need statewide indicators of what progress all students are making each year – as the nation’s chief state school officers, and many civil rights organizations have asked? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

Should funds intended for high-poverty schools actually go to those schools? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

Should this country support innovations by educators at the local level that improve education for our young people? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”

We cannot afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “It’s optional.”

I respect my Republican colleagues deeply, and their care for this country’s children is real. So I am optimistic about reaching bipartisan agreement on a bill that holds true to the promise of real opportunity.

In making choices for our children’s future, we will decide who we are as a nation. For the sake of our children, our communities, and our country, let’s make the right choice.


Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education. Information about ESEA is available at

How to fix No Child Left Behind

By Diane Ravitch | EdSource Today |

Diane Ravich
Diane Ravich

Mar 12, 2015  ::  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s commentary for EdSource last month, called “How Not to Fix No Child Left Behind,” consisted for the most part of mushy platitudes that must be measured against the realities of his actions over the past six years.

During that time, Duncan has aggregated an unprecedented power to tell states and districts how to operate. The administration’s Race to the Top program was not passed into law by Congress, yet it was funded with $5 billion awarded by Congress as part of the economic stimulus plan following the 2008 recession.

Duncan used that huge financial largesse to make himself the nation’s education czar. When states were most economically distressed, he dangled billions of dollars before them in a competition. They were not eligible to enter the competition unless they agreed to lift caps on opening more privately managed charter schools, to rely on test scores to a significant degree when evaluating teachers, to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards” (aka the Common Core standards, which had not even been completed in 2009 when the competition was announced) and to take dramatic action to “turn around” schools with low test scores (such as closing the school or firing all or most of the staff).

Almost every state applied for a share of the billions that Duncan controlled, and almost every state changed its laws to conform to his wishes, yet only 18 states and the District of Columbia won awards. Duncan added the same conditions to state waivers from NCLB’s unrealistic target of 100% proficiency in reading and math for all children in grades 3-8.

As an exercise in federal power, it was brilliant, as Duncan got almost every state to do what he wanted and make it appear to be voluntary. It is important to bear in mind that none of the so-called sanctions and remedies in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was supported by evidence from research or experience.

State takeovers of low-performing schools have seldom (if ever) led to improvement; charter schools have a mixed and mostly unimpressive record; evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores has been unsuccessful because most of the factors that influence test scores (like family life) are beyond the control of teachers, and students are not randomly assigned to classes; and the effects of the Common Core standards are untested and unknown.

When Duncan writes “how not to fix NCLB,” he is responding to the Republicans’ revulsion to his heavy-handed exercise of power over the last six years. They want to curb his ability and that of future secretaries of education to overstep the long-understood federal system that limits the role of the U.S. Department of Education.

There is much to dislike in the Republicans’ rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is the most recent version of America’s most important education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They intend to make Title I funding for poor children portable, so that the money can be transferred to charter schools and perhaps vouchers as well. Instead of federal aid being targeted to help schools in poor communities, it will become available to spur school choice, which has long been the Republicans’ favorite remedy, despite the absence of evidence for the efficacy of either charters or vouchers.

Any genuine fix to NCLB would recognize that the administration of President George W. Bush took a wrong turn by changing ESEA from a law devoted to equity to a law devoted to testing and accountability. The switch from ESEA to NCLB was a substitution of punishment and sanctions for direct federal aid to the neediest districts. ESEA and the federal aid it supplied were supposed to help poor children, not convert their schools into test-prep factories or close them or privatize them.

Both Republicans and Democrats are determined to maintain the annual testing regime at the heart of NCLB. It is perplexing to see so many Democrats aligning themselves with George W. Bush’s educational legacy of annual testing. Teachers and parents know that high-stakes testing has distorted the purpose of education, has diverted billions of dollars to the testing industry, has discouraged teachers, has labeled children as “failures” in elementary school, and that NCLB is widely viewed as a failed law.

Advocates of the testing regime will point to improved test scores as “proof” that the demands of NCLB were correct. But they won’t admit that test scores improved even faster before NCLB was implemented, or that scores on international tests remain flat. Nor do they care that the relentless focus on testing has reduced the time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign languages and physical education. Thus, the quality of education for most children has been reduced in pursuit of higher test scores.

Over the past six years, the evidence showing the invalidity of Duncan’s “reforms” continues to accumulate, yet he insists on ignoring it. He loves charters, even though they intensify segregation and the zero-tolerance policies of “no excuses” charters create harsh disciplinary environments, leading to high suspension rates. He remains determined to judge teachers by test scores, even though the National Academy of Education, the American Educational Research Association and even the American Statistical Association warned against it. Duncan’s preferred method of teacher evaluation has been found to be unstable and inaccurate, but he doesn’t care or notice.

Enrollment in teacher education programs across the country and even in Teach for America has dropped sharply; veteran teachers are taking early retirement. But Duncan does not associate the lowered status of the teaching profession or the demoralization of teachers with his own punitive policies.

Instead of talking about “how not to fix NCLB,” here are a few ideas for how genuinely to fix NCLB:

  • Restore the original purpose of the ESEA: equity for poor children and the schools they attend. These schools need more money for smaller classes, social workers, nurses, and librarians, not more testing.
  • Designate federal aid for reducing class size, for intensive tutoring by certified teachers and for other interventions that are known to be effective.
  • Raise standards for those entering teaching.
  • Eliminate the testing and accountability portions of the law and leave decisions about when and how often to test to states and districts.
  • Rely on the federal testing program – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – to provide an audit of every state’s progress. NAEP data are disaggregated by race, gender, ethnicity, language and disability status. NAEP tracks achievement gaps between blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites. Anyone who wishes to compare Missouri and California can easily do so with NAEP data that measures performance in reading and math in 4th and 8th grade every four years.

Testing every child every year in grades 3-8 and 11 is an enormous waste of money and instructional time. Testing samples of students, as the NAEP does, tells us whatever we need to know. Teachers should write their own tests; they know what they taught and what their students should have learned. Use normed standardized tests only for diagnostic purposes, to help students, not to reward or punish them and not to reward or punish their teachers or close their schools.

Policymakers may decide to reauthorize NCLB and give it a new name. But if they maintain the current program of high-stakes testing, as both Secretary Duncan and the Republicans want, they will feed the fires of the anti-testing movement. They will confront angry parents, students and educators who know that testing has become too consequential, too punitive and too frequent. High-performing nations do not test every child every year. We shouldn’t either.


Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, is the author of “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  She was Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H.W. Bush from 1991-93.

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