June 18, 2011

State awaits relief from No Child Left Behind

With stiff school sanctions looming, Maine looks for a waiver if Congress doesn't rewrite the law by fall.

By JASON SINGER Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week that if Congress doesn't pass a new version of the No Child Left Behind Act this fall, he will use his authority to release states from some of the law's more criticized provisions.

Maine would welcome that relief, said Stephen Bowen, the state's education commissioner. He said Maine would likely join the other New England states -- or a larger group -- in a request for waivers in exchange for adopting more progressive education policies.

Duncan said several states have asked for waivers to be excused from one of the federal law's most controversial provisions: that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

It's a great goal, educators say, but it's impossible to fairly measure who is proficient under the current law.

The law has been flawed from the beginning, Bowen said in an interview this week, because it lets states define what is "proficient" and make up their own tests to determine that proficiency.

Instead, education commissioners want universal standards, Bowen said.

"Right now, a student who's proficient -- highly proficient -- in Mississippi isn't even close to proficient in Massachusetts," Bowen said. "It just doesn't make sense."

At the current pace, only a couple of Maine schools will have 100 percent of their students proficient in both reading and math by 2014, by Maine standards.

Those standards are among the toughest in the country as ranked by EducationNext, an education journal run by a Harvard University professor.

But if Congress doesn't overhaul the law and Duncan doesn't give out waivers, public schools in Maine and elsewhere that don't reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014 will face major sanctions.

Even the law's sanctions don't make sense, Bowen said. They include bringing in management companies to run schools, or firing entire school staffs.

"Maybe if we're in New York that's an option, but in Machias, Maine, you can't do that," Bowen said. "Where are you going to get 30 new teachers in rural Maine?"

Under the current No Child Left Behind law, about 80,000 of the country's 100,000 public schools will be considered failing by this fall. But, as Bowen and Duncan pointed out, waivers may not be necessary.

The rewrite of No Child Left Behind appears to have bipartisan support, which should aid the Obama administration's attempt for an overhaul by fall.

In 2004, Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe commissioned a No Child Left Behind task force to provide recommendations for improvements to the federal law. Using that information, they introduced an overhaul bill in 2007 and again in February.

But no rewrite bills have gained traction in Congress, because lawmakers have struggled to agree on how to overhaul such a sprawling piece of legislation.

In an email Friday, Collins said there's "no reason" a rewrite can't happen this year.

"I continue to believe that reforms must be made and that the challenges of rural states must be taken into account," she said. The three other members of Maine's congressional delegation echoed Collins' sentiments.

Duncan said that if no progress is made soon in Congress, the administration will reach out to governors and state education commissioners to begin negotiating the potential waivers, asking what kinds of school improvement policies they would be willing to undertake to get those waivers.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, which includes the education commissioners from all 50 states, has some ideas for improvement policies, Bowen said.

In addition to universal standards for proficiency, commissioners would like to reform teacher evaluations.

No Child Left Behind now mandates that all classrooms have "highly qualified" teachers. The law defines "highly qualified" as teachers with lots of education and training -- it doesn't grade performance.

(Continued on page 2)

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