Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a man on a mission: to hear what teachers, students, parents, and school leaders in at least 15 states think about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the controversial education law championed by former President George W. Bush.
Duncan visited schools in West Virginia May 5, the first stop in a series of steps toward reviewing and reforming NCLB. President Barack Obama has pledged to overhaul the law, but he has been vague about how far he would go, or whether he would scrap it altogether.
"I don’t know if ‘scrap’ is the word," Duncan told reporters last week. "Where things make sense, we’re going to keep them. Where things didn’t make sense, we’re going to change them."
Whatever the administration decides to do, it needs the approval of Congress, which passed the law with broad bipartisan support in 2001 but deadlocked over a rewrite in 2007.
Duncan gives the law credit for shining a spotlight on kids who need the most help. NCLB pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students, a group that typically includes minority kids, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.
"Forevermore in our country, we can’t sweep those huge disparities with outcomes between white children and Latino children and African-American children, we can’t sweep those under the rug ever again," Duncan said.
Yet Duncan has many criticisms of NCLB, and he has plenty of company. Opponents insist the law’s annual reading and math tests have squeezed subjects such as music and art out of the classroom and complain that schools were promised billions of dollars in funding they never received.
Critics also say the law is too punitive: More than a third of schools failed to meet yearly progress goals last year, according to an analysis.
That means millions of children are a long way from reaching the law’s ambitious goals. The law pushes schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.
"What [the creators of] No Child Left Behind did is, they were absolutely loose on the goals," Duncan told the Education Writers Association, meeting in Washington, D.C. "But they were very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there."
He added: "I think that was fundamentally backwards."
Duncan said the federal government should be "tight" on the goals, insisting on more rigorous academic standards that are uniform across all states. And he said the government should be "much looser" in terms of how states meet these goals, giving states and school systems greater flexibility as long as they deliver results.
The education community is watching closely to see just what Duncan means by "tight" and "loose." So far, the administration has offered few clues.
But Duncan has left no doubt that he wants to change the name of the law, which is deeply unpopular, according to public opinion surveys.
"I do think the name ‘No Child Left Behind’ is absolutely toxic; I think we have to start over," Duncan said. He has said he would like to hold a contest for schoolchildren to come up with a new name.
Since the law’s passage, students have made modest gains, at least in elementary and middle school, the grades that are the focus of NCLB. The biggest gains have come among low-achieving students, the kids who now are getting unprecedented attention.
The story is different in high school, where progress seems stalled and where the dropout rate–a dismal one in four children–has not budged.