Obama to Unveil Plan That Drastically Changes No Child Left Behind

Chicago – For nearly a decade, public schools around the country have struggled to meet federal academic standards, considered “failing” when too many children flunked achievement tests.

But if the White House has its way, schools and districts no longer would be labeled failures and No Child Left Behind – the landmark education act signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002 – would be overhauled.

President Barack Obama on Friday is expected to propose monumental changes to the way schools are judged and sanctioned based on student academic achievement, fixing what senior administration officials on Thursday called a “broken law.”

A cornerstone of law – that all students tested pass state exams by 2013-14 – would be thrown out in favor of states coming up with their own plans to bring struggling students up to par in the most troubled schools. “Adequate Yearly Progress” – the annual requirement to improve test scores – would go away.

And states would have more flexibility in spending federal poverty dollars that previously had to go toward special tutoring for struggling students.

Administration officials on Thursday stressed that states will have to set a high academic bar, and that schools still will be held accountable for student performance.

The changes aren't a sure thing yet.

So far, the Obama administration has been unable to reach a deal with Congress to amend the law that put No Child Left Behind reforms in place, so the U.S. Department of Education is moving forward with a process of waivers to allow states the flexibility to change their systems of testing students and judging the performance of schools and districts.

States can apply for the waivers to No Child Left Behind as early as November.

Illinois will likely seek one, said Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus.

“We would still like to see the details involved in the process. While we support the general themes for flexibility, additional information will be forthcoming from the USDE over the next week or two that will assist us in making that decision on whether or not to formally seek a waiver,” she said.

In Illinois alone, more than 90 percent of high schools are below the federal bar, as well as 44 percent of elementary schools.

The waivers themselves are controversial, and the White House already has encountered some resistance from members of Congress who believe Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan are going too far without lawmakers' approval.

No Child Left Behind got bipartisan support when it was approved a decade ago, and civil rights groups lauded the new law's focus on ensuring that minority and disadvantaged students pass state tests and got help if they are struggling.

Every year, an increasing percentage of students had to pass reading and math tests, and ultimately all students had to pass by 2013-14. Schools and districts have been judged not only on all students, but groups of students within the school and district, such as minority and poor students. If one group failed, the school failed, and schools faced sanctions for repeatedly failing.

“The problem with the current system is that it is driving the whole educational system to a single test score. … It is the dumbing down of America's schools,” said Superintendent Harry Griffith, who oversees the Lake Forest, Ill., high school and elementary districts.

“Accountability needs to stay – it is very important. But using one single test score is irresponsible,” he said.

Lake Forest High School District 115 was the only high school district in Illinois that met the adequate yearly progress target required for passing state tests in 2010. But this year, Griffith said the district didn't make AYP, because of the performance of one student group.

Around the country, lawmakers have been hearing complaints about all the failing schools, putting pressure on Washington to do something about No Child Left Behind.

It wasn't just the bad public image that worried educators. Concerns have arisen about states lowering standards and schools focusing on teaching to the test and getting kids to pass rather than providing a rich curriculum.

“There's an overemphasis on minimum achievement and not on the higher end,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has been active in attempts to reform No Child Left Behind.

Wilhoit stressed that No Child Left Behind brought important changes to school systems around the country, particularly by putting a spotlight on the performance of students from all backgrounds.

“It was probably good for its time, but it's time to move ahead to the next phase,” he said.

Under the waiver process, states will have to come up with plans that include three critical areas. They must adopt learning standards to ensure students are ready for college and work; develop systems that reward high-achieving schools that serve low-income students and show student progress, and put in place teacher and principal evaluation systems that include judging educators in part on the academic progress of their students.

States also will have to focus on turning around their worst-performing schools, the bottom 5 percent, and paying more attention to improving an additional 10 percent of schools that have low graduation rates and big gaps in performance between student groups.

Glenn “Max” McGee, a former state school superintendent and former local district superintendent in Illinois, said it will be important to continue breaking out data to spotlight how disadvantaged students are doing compared to their peers, and not diminish attention on the achievement gap.

“The achievement gap is public enemy No. 1,” McGee said.

He also said that while the states may move away from a system in which schools are labeled as failing, educators can't ignore the realities.

“Unfortunately, we will have failing schools,” he said. “They just may not be designated as such.”

Diane Rado writes for the Chicago Tribune.

©2011 the Chicago Tribune