Talkin’ NCLB Changin’ Blues

Sam Dillon at NYT:

The Obama administration is proposing a sweeping overhaul of President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, and will call for broad changes in how schools are judged to be succeeding or failing, as well as for the elimination of the law’s 2014 deadline for bringing every American child to academic proficiency.

Educators who have been briefed by administration officials said the proposals for changes in the main law governing the federal role in public schools would eliminate or rework many of the provisions that teachers’ unions, associations of principals, school boards and other groups have found most objectionable.

Yet the administration is not planning to abandon the law’s commitments to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and to encouraging teacher quality.

Significantly, said those who have been briefed, the White House wants to change federal financing formulas so that a portion of the money is awarded based on academic progress, rather than by formulas that apportion money to districts according to their numbers of students, especially poor students. The well-worn formulas for distributing tens of billions of dollars in federal aid have, for decades, been a mainstay of the annual budgeting process in the nation’s 14,000 school districts.

Neal McCluskey at Cato:

On the surface, it makes sense to reward high performance rather than just send money to states based on set formulas. But a little deeper digging reveals the pit below.

The performance-based funding will, it seems, be dropped on top of formula-based outlays.  If the performance-based stuff is minuscule relative to the politically more powerful, everyone-gets-a-lot formulas, it would be meaningless — mere reform-y window dressing. But what if it is sizable?

Then we have to be very concerned about how performance would be measured.

As I have repeatedly warned would happen, the administration seems determined to make adopting national standards drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative — an effort we are constantly told is state-led, totally voluntary, and definitely not federal — essential for getting at least some performance-based funding.

Mark Kleiman:

A requirement that all students to be “proficient” by 2014 could only be met by redefining “proficient.” It’s not clear what the Obama Administration is going to propose – and there’s no hint that it plans to replace outmoded Taylorite defect-finding with statistical quality assurance – but they are going to insist on performance and they are not going to insist on the impossible. That’s progress.

Chester Finn at The Corner:

Later in the evening, Obama’s deputy chief of staff got a bit more specific on the White House blog. She reported that:

The President’s 2011 budget supports a new framework for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that will foster innovation, reward excellence, and promote reform in our schools, as well as invests an additional $1.35 billion to continue the historic Race to the Top program to open it up to districts in order to spur innovation and additional progress. At the same time, the Administration is moving to consolidate ineffective policies and practices. The President’s Budget eliminates six programs and consolidates 38 others into 11 new programs that emphasize using competition to allocate funds, giving communities more choices around activities, and using rigorous evidence to fund what works.

Four points here bear noting:

First, despite the proclaimed “freeze” on federal discretionary spending, education will continue to get lots more money than it did before Obama. It is evidently being “frozen” at record-high levels. (During the current school year, experts estimate, Uncle Sam is bearing 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 costs, dramatically up from the historic average of 9 percent.)

Second, the administration doesn’t want reform-minded school districts to miss out on Race to the Top funding just because their states are recalcitrant dinosaurs in the grip of teachers’ unions, etc. So they’re going to try something unusual: channeling dollars around the states and directly to districts. This is probably good for education reform but almost certainly bad for the 10th Amendment.

Third, it seems they are moving forward this year, as Duncan has hinted, to reauthorize “No Child Left Behind”, a.k.a. the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, seeking to make major changes in it — and to get bipartisan support in doing this. One can only wish them well, but reworking this monstrously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as reforming health care — and by the time Congress is done, it could come out just as badly.

Fourth, every president in memory has tried to eliminate and consolidate dumb education programs in the name of efficiency, economy, and effectiveness. Few of those efforts have succeeded on Capitol Hill — and those that did have been undone within a few years. Everybody knows the federal government has way too many separate “categorical” programs that accomplish nothing other than spending money. But this tar baby is mighty sticky.

Ezra Klein:

The irony of this is that the Bush administration’s preference for strict federal mandates probably tracks as more traditionally liberal than the Obama administration’s idea to condition the money on change but give states ample room to go their own way. That said, the Race to the Top program, though promising, has had a bumpy beginning.

Don Suber:

Obama wants the nation’s education system to adopt the “soft bigotry of lower expectations.”

He is telling America’s children No You Can’t.

Teachers would no longer have to be certified that they know the courses that they teach.

Somewhere Ted Kennedy, who worked with President Bush to pass this bipartisan law, must be ashamed. His brother Jack never would be this mean and uncaring toward America’s schoolchildren. We will go back to treating teaching as a 9-to-3 job, 9 months a year.

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