It’s that time of the year again when Congress considers reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Reauthorization has been stalled for years.
NCLB has been widely praised for its requirement that states and schools break down their test results by subgroups—across racial, socioeconomic and other lines—to highlight achievement gaps. But it’s also garnered lots of criticism for its focus on standardized test-scores and its system of rating schools according to whether they make “adequate yearly progress.”
Sandy Kress—who, as senior advisor to President George W. Bush, was one of the key architects of NCLB—recently wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed that the Obama administration’s proposed changes to the law would gut it of the accountability measures Kress believes are crucial to its success.
“No Child Left Behind does indeed need to be fixed and updated,” he wrote. “But it would be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water to abandon its pillars of accountability. Yet this is precisely what the administration is proposing to do.”
The Hechinger Report talked with Kress earlier this month to get his take on the upcoming attempt at NCLB reauthorization.
The Hechinger Report: If you were solely responsible for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, what would you do?
Kress: I would update it. I would go deeper. Things that interest me—I would have more of an emphasis on the goal of postsecondary readiness. I would encourage states to develop their standards, both content and, now, performance standards. I would put more of an emphasis on secondary education—put the S back in ESEA. I think the [Obama] administration has some splendid ideas on teacher effectiveness. I would redo Title II. I would try to target Title I better … I would definitely try to resolve this issue of transition from the current performance standards to these higher standards, which deals with the 2014 issue [when all U.S. schools must reach 100% proficiency among students or be labeled failing]. So, I would try to do a lot of those things.
The Hechinger Report: You’ve said ESEA has low odds of successfully being reauthorized in the near future. Why is that?
Kress: These are very, very tricky issues to do them in a high-quality way. Could they pass a bill saying … ‘Hey, time-out on all of this?’ Yeah, that’s easy to do. It’s not very noble, not very worthy. I don’t think [it would be] very satisfying. That would be the least memorable, sorriest reauthorization you’ve ever had. So I’m hoping that’s not where we’re going. But to do it seriously, to deal with the kind of issues I just talked about, even substantively—forget the political issues—very difficult challenges to do right, smart. And I think we know from No Child Left Behind, which I thought was a pretty good piece of work, huge problems come out with whatever you do. Those are tough issues. I don’t see how you get them resolved this late in the season. And then the politics is bizarre. I just don’t see it happening.
The Hechinger Report: If it doesn’t get reauthorized soon, what do you see the future of federal education legislation being?
Kress: It’s going to take leadership. … Leaders on the Hill and people in the nonprofit world need to come together around principles and see what they can do administratively and then lead up to legislation. You’ve got to remember, No Child Left Behind was the result of a lot of work in the states around accountability. We worked on it hard. The Congress had worked on it for two years before we got there. And then, we had an incredibly hard year. But we tried to bring together all that work. That’s what has to happen today. I just think it’s a lot of work and a lot of thought and there needs to be a good spirit. I mean, back then we had Senator [Ted] Kennedy and Representative [George] Miller, and Judd Gregg and John Boehner and George Bush sitting together, working together. We need to have that kind of approach.