Education reform ditches only part of No Child Left Behind

The U.S. Senate today passed an education reform bill, and the president is expected to sign it tomorrow. Both Alaska senators voted for it, as did Congressman Don Young in the House.  Many lawmakers say they’re happy to dump No Child Left Behind. But, the new education bill leaves in place major elements of the law, and that may not be a terrible thing.

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Before No Child Left Behind, school districts didn’t really have to come clean about their failures. Bad schools were just swept under the rug, hidden among the averages. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a big critic of the 2001 law, but she says the law’s mandated tests did produce important data on specific schools and populations.

“No Child Left Behind, for all of its warts, for all of its problems, what it did deliver to us was a level of accountability,” she said.

In her pre-Senate days, her own sons’ school, Government Hill Elementary in Anchorage, was labeled a failing school at first. Murkowski says it was devastating to the parents and the neighborhood. The problem, she says, is that too few students from a small subcategory showed up on test day. But Murkowski says the bigger Alaska picture was disturbing.

“It was pretty tough to take, to see that in many of our rural schools, to see that so many of our Alaska Native students were being left behind,” she said. “It caused us to look critically at how we were providing for that level of education. That was important.”

Trouble is, Murkowski says, after the law found the weak spots, it also dictated how to fix them, with mandates from Washington.

“Identifying the problem was key. It was critical. Itwas necessary. NCLB allowed us to do that,” she said. “But once you’ve identified the problem you can’t assume there’s a one size fits all solution. “

What works in New York City or even Anchorage might not work in rural Alaska. For instance, Murkowski says, one common Washington mandate for a failing school is to fire the principal.

“Well, what happens if you’re a small school in a rural community?” she said. “Let’s just pick a community. Like Kobuk. Might not be easy to get a principal out into the school there in Kobuk. And it might not be the principal that can fix it.”

Murkowski was on the House-Senate conference committee that wrote the final bill. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, was one of the main authors. He said on the Senate floor he thought he wanted to get rid of a much-despised hallmark of No Child Left Behind: the federal test. Actually, 17 of them over a child’s education. In the end, Alexander concluded the problem wasn’t really the tests, but that No Child Left Behind put too much emphasis on them.

“The results of these tests count so much in the federally mandated accountability system that states and school districts are giving students dozens of additional tests to prepare for the federal test.”

The new law lets states and school districts decide how much weight to give the 17 tests. It has states setting their own standards and saying when and how to intervene if schools don’t meet them.

The legislation also includes a million-dollar annual grant program for Native language immersion schools, authored in part by Murkowski. And it has money for sexual abuse education in states like Alaska that have passed legislation known as Erin’s law.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Lizhere.

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