Published May 05, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a man on a mission: to hear what teachers, students and parents in at least 15 states think about No Child Left Behind, the controversial education law championed by former President George W. Bush.
Duncan is visiting schools in West Virginia Tuesday, the first stop in the first steps toward reviewing and reforming the program.
President Barack Obama has pledged to overhaul the law, but he has been vague about how far he would go, or whether he would scrap it altogether.
"I don't know if `scrap' is the word," Duncan told reporters last week. "Where things make sense, we're going to keep them. Where things didn't make sense, we're going to change them."
Whatever the administration decides to do, it needs the approval of Congress, which passed the law with broad bipartisan support in 2001 but deadlocked over a rewrite in 2007.
Duncan gives the law credit for shining a spotlight on kids who need the most help. No Child Left Behind pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students, a group that typically includes minority kids, English-language learners and kids with disabilities.
"Forevermore in our country, we can't sweep those huge disparities with outcomes between white children and Latino children and African-American children, we can't sweep those under the rug ever again," Duncan said.
Yet Duncan has many criticisms of No Child Left Behind, and he has plenty of company.
Opponents insist the law's annual reading and math tests have squeezed subjects like music and art out of the classroom and that schools were promised billions of dollars they never received.
Critics also say the law is too punitive: More than a third of schools failed to meet yearly progress goals last year, according to the Education Week newspaper.
That means millions of children are a long way from reaching the law's ambitious goals. The law pushes schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.
"What No Child Left Behind did is, they were absolutely loose on the goals," Duncan told the Education Writers Association, meeting in Washington. "But they were very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there.
"I think that was fundamentally backwards," he said.
Duncan said the federal government should be "tight" on the goals, insisting on more rigorous academic standards that are uniform across the states. And he said it should be "much looser" in terms of how states meet the goals.
The education community is watching closely to see just what Duncan means by "tight" and "loose." So far, the administration has offered few clues.
But Duncan has left no doubt that he wants to change the name of the law, which is deeply unpopular, according to public opinion surveys.
"I do think the name `No Child Left Behind' is absolutely toxic; I think we have to start over," Duncan said. He has said he would like to hold a contest for school kids to come up with a new name.
Since the law's passage, students have made modest gains, at least in elementary and middle school, the grades that are the focus of No Child Left Behind. The biggest gains have come among lower-achieving students, the kids who now are getting unprecedented attention.
The story is different in high school, where progress seems stalled and where the dropout rate, a dismal one in four children, has not budged.