Friday, October 21, 2011

Senate Education Committee Approves NCLB revisions

Education Week

Published Online: October 20, 2011

Senate Education Panel Approves ESEA Overhaul

After a long delay, the Senate education committee approved a bill Thursday night that would rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but the measure is certain to encounter further debate on the Senate floor.
The bill, sponsored by the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and its ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, garnered support from all of the committee's Democrats and three Republicans—Sen. Enzi, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Sen. Harkin hopes to move the bill to the floor of the Senate before Thanksgiving, and he believes it's "possible" that Congress could approve a rewritten version of the nation's main education law before Christmas—in time to negate the need for the Obama administration’s waiver plan.
The bill would change several aspects of the current ESEA, known, at least for now, as the No Child Left Behind Act.
It would scrap the accountability system at the heart of the nearly 10-year-old NCLB Act—adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Instead, it would place the federal focus on the lowest-performing schools, including high schools with high-drop rates. The measure would call on states to craft college-and-career standards, and it would streamline the Department of Education by consolidating 82 programs into around 40.

The measure would retain the NCLB law’s regime of testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and it would continue to require states to disaggregate data by particular subgroups of students, including racial minorities.
But it would scrap the requirement that states set annual, measurable goals—a move that drew stringent opposition from the civil rights community, including disability advocacy groups who have long seen a champion in Sen. Harkin. In an interview after the markup, Sen. Harkin said that, ultimately, “we will not lose the support of disability groups.”

Changes Made

Several amendments to the Harkin-Enzi bill were floated during the two-day markup leading up to Thursday's vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Among them, an approved amendment would let states submit their own ideas for turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
That provision, sponsored by Sen. Alexander would retain the six turnaround models spelled out in the ESEA reauthorization bill introduced last week by Sens. Harkin and Enzi. The amendment would add a seventh option, allowing districts to come up with their own turnaround ideas, then submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval.
Speaking on the second day of the committee’s markup of the bill, Sen. Alexander said his amendment would allow states to come up with their own best interventions for the lowest-performing schools. He said his own home state, Tennessee, has an excellent new state schools chief and governor who may come up with their own ideas for low-performing schools.
When he was governor of Tennessee, Sen. Alexander said, “I never thought Washington was ahead of me.”
But seven Democrats on the committee—including Sen. Harkin and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.—voted against the amendment, which passed with unanimous support from Republican members.
“We are talking about the bottom 5 percent of schools,” said Sen. Bennet. “None of us send our children to those schools. None of us has grandchildren in those schools. ... My hope is that whatever these models are, they are at least as robust as the ones that are contained in the legislation. Otherwise we’re going to have those children who are marooned in those 5 percent of schools, marooned in those schools for the rest of their K-12 education, for the rest of their lives.”
After the vote, a Senate GOP aide gave Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, a congratulatory hug. The NEA put its political heft behind the provision.
Ms. Kusler was happy with the outcome. The NEA has not been a huge fan of the Obama administration’s turnaround models, in part because the union considers them a federal intrusion into what it sees as a state and local interest. And many of the existing models require the removal of teachers, or call for merit pay.
“We applaud the passage of Sen. Alexander’s amendment to add additional flexibility to the turnaround models in the bill,” she said in a statement. “If you want to make lasting, sustainable changes, you must engage all of the people who are involved—educators, parents, administrators, and community members.”

Amendments Accepted

Amendments from a number of senators were accepted during the markup:
• Sen. Alexander introduced an amendment, accepted on voice vote, that would allow students in the lowest 5 percent of schools to transfer to better-performing schools.
• An amendment sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., would require that new principals coming into turnaround schools have a background in school improvement. Some Republicans voted against it, including Sen. Alexander, who said he thought that districts would already be planning to choose the best person.
• An amendment by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would give states the option of using computer-adaptive tests for accountability purposes under the law. Sen. Franken said the tests are a big hit in his state and give teachers a right-now picture of how their students are doing.
• Another Franken amendment would provide competitive grants to recruit and train principals to lead turnaround schools.
• Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt., won approval for an amendment that would call for schools to do a better job tracking students’ movement from 8th grade to 9th grade.
• An amendment from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asks states to “cross-tabulate” existing student data to make it more clear how students in particular subgroups are doing.
• Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced an amendment to reauthorize the Educational Technology State Grants, which helps states design technology programs. The program lost its authorization in the 2011 continuing resolution, and was eliminated under the bill. The language would restore the program.
• Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., introduced an amendment that would create a “well-rounded education” fund. School districts could use the money to fund arts; civics and government; economics; environmental education; financial literacy; foreign languages; geography; health education; history; physical education; and social studies programs.
• Sen. Bennet put forth an amendment that would give states the option of holding their teacher training programs accountable for producing educators who demonstrate the ability to boost student achievement before they graduate. In exchange for their participation in the program, academies would be exempt from regulations that are "burdensome," "input based," and "unrelated to student achievement.

Amendments Turned Down

Other key amendments were rejected, including:
• An amendment by Sen. Sanders that would have only allowed teachers to be considered highly qualified if they had completed a state-approved traditional or alternative teacher preparation program, or passed a rigorous state-approved teacher performance assessment, and attained certification in their subject matter. Sen. Bennet argued the measure would deal a blow to Teach For America and other alternative certification programs.
• An amendment by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would have scrapped the authorization for the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps communities create cradle-to-career services modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Sen. Kirk said the program had only financed a handful of planning grants and the money would be better spent on special education.
The markup got off to a rocky start after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threw up hurdles, filing 74 amendments and using a rare procedural move to limit the time the committee could debate the bill. He and committee leaders reached an agreement that allowed things to move forward while assuring him of a hearing on the bill Nov. 8, before it goes to the Senate floor.
Sen. Paul eventually agreed to scale his amendments back to just a handful, including one to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act. That amendment failed.

Amendments Withdrawn

The watch-word for this markup seems to be “withdrawn.” Democrats, in particular, seem to be introducing amendments that take a stand on a particular issue, and then pulling them back without a vote. It’s a way of planting a marker on policy without holding up the proceedings.
Some of these amendments are likely to be offered when the full Senate debates the bill, which could happen before Christmas if leaders on the education committee have their way. Among the examples:
• An Alexander amendment that would have stripped the “highly qualified teacher” provisions out of the bill. The bill retains the idea that teachers must have a degree in the subject they teach, plus be state-certified. Sen. Alexander’s amendment would have let states decide who is highly qualified. He said he’d be bringing this one to the floor.
• An Alexander amendment that would have taken out language in the bill requiring that states make continuous improvement, and another that would have eliminated a proposed requirement that states develop a plan to address schools with persistent achievement gaps. He made it clear that both of those amendments will make a reappearance on the floor, and that he’d fight for them in a conference committee.
• A pair of amendments from Sen. Casey to improve early childhood education.
• An amendment by Sen. Hagan that would have called for extending learning time programs.
• A proposal from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to allow states wiggle room from the law’s testing mandates if appropriations aren’t kept at a certain level.
• Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., also introduced and then withdrew an amendment that would have scrapped the authorization for the Race to the Top program, President Barack Obama’s signature education initiative. He said he would offer the amendment on the Senate floor.
One last tidbit: The new name for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. No Child Left Behind has become a toxic brand, so the committee is looking to get rid of the name and go back to the classic version. 
Monty Neill, Ed.D.; Executive Director, FairTest; P.O. Box 300204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-477-9792;; Donate to FairTest:


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