We've previously written about both presidential candidates' unwillingness to talk about No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That's changed a bit - especially since the Teacher's College debate between Obama spokesperson Linda Darling-Hammond and McCain advisor Lisa Graham Keegan brought it back into the public eye. Regardless, it's impossible to deny that whoever wins the election will have to tackle NCLB head-on. It's not going to be an easy battle.
Reauthorizing NCLB will likely be a long process that demands the next President's leadership and guidance. The list of topics that is likely to make or break the reauthorization process is extensive and overwhelming. But in honor of this Election Day, we have selected a few that are near and dear to our hearts for the future President-elect to look forward to.
First and foremost is the looming 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency on academic tests. As we've read in the headlines time and again, schools, districts, and states are struggling to reach intermediate goals, let alone approach 100 percent proficiency in all subjects for all student subgroups.
Accomplishing such levels of proficiency could take a miracle. Many states set low initial annual achievement goals in their trajectory towards 100 percent proficiency. As a result, their schools are expected to make double digit leaps in proficiency between now and 2014. This type of growth is near to impossible.
Given the limitations of reasonable growth, maintaining the 100 percent requirement in a new iteration of the law will result in more Schools In Need of Improvement (SINIs). States and districts barely have the capacity to turn around the number of low-performing schools they already have. Imagine the strain on their capacity should the list of SINIs grow.
Some stakeholders have suggested that the reauthorized version of NCLB focus on student academic growth, rather than static levels of achievement, and allow more flexibility for schools, districts, and states to reach those growth goals. Moving away from 100 proficiency may present a political obstacle, but directing federal accountability towards realistic expectations could mean real, positive change for low-performing schools.
Speaking of Schools In Need of Improvement, the current version of NCLB is short on guidance and funds for improving or restructuring schools that haven't made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for at least two years. Drastically improving schools takes ample time, money, and planning, and many districts and states lack the dollars, infrastructure, or expertise to do so.
Currently, little research exists to guide school improvement and restructuring - an area where federal investment could make a big difference. Hopefully, a new NCLB will include provisions for research and development on school improvement strategies, direction for schools and districts undergoing the process, and financial support for, well, "supporting" schools.
Another hot-button issue for NCLB reauthorization is the comparability provision for Title I funding. Comparability is intended to prevent school districts from systematically spending less on students in their highest-poverty schools and ensure that Title I funds supplement, not supplant, services to those students. Districts can demonstrate comparable funding by issuing written assurances of comparability or comparing student-instructor ratios, per pupil teacher salary spending, or per pupil expenditures across Title I and non-Title I schools.
But comparability is subject to a series of loopholes that gut the provision. For example, when calculating per pupil teacher salary spending, districts can exclude salary differences due to years of experience. As a result, two schools in the same school district can be deemed "comparable" even if teachers in one school are far more experienced, and therefore higher paid, than those in another. Typically, high-poverty schools lose out in this game, employing primarily inexperienced teachers.
Comparability regulations currently allow districts to remain "comparable" while unevenly distributing experienced teachers and putting low-income students at a disadvantage in the classroom. If the next President wants to ensure that all children are given the tools they need to succeed, comparability regulations must be strengthened to resolve inequities in teacher distribution.
There's also a growing list of special programs the next President will have to negotiate and pare down. Various stakeholders have been fighting for universal pre-K, school construction funds, national standards, and all manner of pet projects. Some programs have more merit than others, but there will not be enough money to pay for them all. It will be impossible to please everyone with the reauthorization bill, and we wish the new President luck as he works his way through it.
Finally, there is the need for a new, snappy title for the law. Surely "No Child Left Behind" has worn thin on the public's patience and a new name could be just what the doctor ordered. But given the problems detailed above, that's probably the least of the President-elect's education concerns.