Education Reforms Unveiled by Duncan, Democratic Senators

Washington – U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a group of Democratic senators this morning embraced a slate of education reforms that move away from rigid testing and toward flexibility for local school districts.

The recommendations come as Congress prepares to reconsider the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as ESEA, which offers a slate of regulations and funding for K-12 education.

Part of the push is to re-vamp No Child Left Behind, the landmark Bush-era legislation that focused on closing the achievement gap for minority children, but also has been lambasted by parents and educators as too narrowly focused on testing.

“I’ve heard for years from principals and teachers that this does not work,” said U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat who, along with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, helped lead the effort to develop the principles. “The stale arguments of yesterday are impeding change, and the same-old, same-old is too late.”

Hagan said new legislation must encourage all progress – recognizing, for example, when a teacher helps a 5th grader, for example, move up from a 3rd-grade reading level to a 4th-grade reading level.

Now, testing focuses primarily on whether children are at or below grade level.

“You’ve got to have a high standard, and there has to be accountability and measures in place,” Hagan said in an interview. “We’ve got to take standardized tests but also recognize gains. We’ve got to recognize that not every child learns the same way.”

Duncan and the senators unveiled their proposal this morning at a press conference at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. Among the senators’ and administration’s goals in education reform:

– Designing a testing structure that recognizes gains and is tailored to individual schools’ specific situations – what the senators called “a more nuanced approach.”

– Focusing dollars and attention on turning around especially troubled schools in the bottom five percent of each state. According to the senators, 13 percent of high schools produce 51 percent of the nation’s dropouts.

– Holding teacher preparation programs accountable in how well they train teachers. Nearly 50 percent of new teachers drop out of the profession within their first five years of teaching.

– Encouraging more innovation through programs such as President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top grant program. Last year, several states competed for millions of dollars in grant money. The rewards were based largely on how well states encouraged flexibility and innovation, including the encouragement of charter schools.

– Closing a loophole in requirements for a school to receive Title I funding, which is supposed to be steered toward schools with high percentages of low-income students. The senators want a school-by-school accountability system, rather than just at the district level.

Today’s push comes as Obama prepares to travel to Florida and then Massachusetts to talk about education. Along with Hagan, several senators have spent more than six months shaping the principles they want to see in K-12 education reform.

They include U.S. Sens. Herb Kohl, Mary Landrieu, Thomas Carper, Mark Warner, Mark Begich, Joe Manchin, Chris Coons and Joseph Lieberman. Lieberman is an Independent; the other senators are Democrats.