Policy Documents

Duncan to Testify on 'No Child' Blueprint

Ben Boychuk –
March 16, 2010

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to testify Wednesday on the Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind. Duncan will answer questions about the plan from members of both the House and Senate education committees.

Earlier, President Obama discussed his administration’s plans to revamp the 2002 law in his weekly radio address.

“What this plan recognizes is that while the federal government can play a leading role in encouraging the reforms and high standards we need, the impetus for that change will come from states, and from local schools and school districts,” Obama said in his Saturday broadcast. “So, yes, we set a high bar – but we also provide educators the flexibility to reach it.”

The administration’s blueprint has attracted mixed reviews from school reformers as well as harsh criticism traditional opponents of reform, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, praised the blueprint for being “faithful to reform realism,” while criticizing the plan’s critics.

“In a sane world, the teachers unions would be singing Amen, the accountability hawks would be screaming bloody murder, and the Republicans would be dancing in the streets,” Petrilli wrote on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. “But that’s not the reaction found in press accounts in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal. It’s a classic blind man’s elephant: everyone seems to be focusing on just one part of the proposal they like or hate, but not seeing the big picture.”

But Petrilli’s colleague Andy Smarick, a former Education Department official, writes that he’s “never been so conflicted about a K-12 education proposal.”

Smarick also offered his first impressions of the blueprint Monday on the Flypaper blog:

A glass-half-full view of the proposal is that the Obama administration has learned from the nation’s 8-year experience with NCLB; that it is holding on to some of the most important components of accountability while adding valuable new features; that it is openly recognizing Uncle Sam’s strengths and weaknesses; and that those best suited to controlling schools–state and local leaders–will be re-empowered.

The half-empty interpretation is that the administration is abandoning meaningful federal accountability, handing the reins back to entities that failed too many kids for too long, and capitulating to establishment organizations that bristled at being required to increase the achievement all of kids.

Smarick says that the Obama administration proposal would mean a “greatly diminished” federal role in education, but other experts disagree.

Jay Greene, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas and a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, says the administration’s proposal is a mix of good and bad. But Greene says he has no doubt that the plan would expand the federal government’s reach into the classroom.

Greene wrote Monday on his weblog:

Obama [and] Duncan have the good idea of getting rid of the unrealistic goal of universal proficiency in basic skills by all groups by 2014. But they have the bad idea of setting an even more unrealistic goal of universal college-readiness by 2020.…

They favor the good idea of focusing on growth in student achievement rather than percent proficient, but they endorse the bad idea of making the measures of achievement so mushy as to be useless, like including “learning environment” (whatever that is) in the measure and by wanting portfolio assessments.

They say they want to end micro-managing of schools from DC (not that this is really happening), but then they want national standards that would ultimately lead to a national curriculum, national testing, and national micro-managing.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, also praised the administration for eliminating No Child Left Behind’s original 2014 proficiency deadline. But he is critical of the proposed national curriculum standards and new federal spending.

McCluskey wrote Monday at Cato’s At Liberty blog:

The proposed reauthorization would force all states to either sign onto national mathematics and language-arts standards, or get a state college to certify their standards as “college and career ready.”  It would also set a goal of all students being college and career ready by 2020. But setting a single, national standard makes no logical sense because all kids have different needs and abilities; no one curriculum will ever optimally serve but a tiny minority of students.

Also, on the (very) negative side of the register, Obama’s budget proposal would increase ESEA spending by $3 billion from last year — for a total of $28.1 billion — to pay for all of the ESEA reauthorization’s promises of incentives and rewards. That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes.

Even if this proposal were loaded with nothing but smart, tough ideas, it would ultimately fail for the same reason that top-down control of government schools has failed for decades. Teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats make their livelihoods from public schooling, and hence spend more time and money on education lobbying and politicking than anyone else. That makes them by far the most powerful forces in public schooling, and what they want for themselves is what we’d all want in their place if we could get it: lots of money and no accountability to anyone.

The House Education and Labor Committee is scheduled to hold further hearings on ESEA reauthorization on Thursday. The hearing will “examine how schools can properly address the needs of diverse students under Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” according to an announcement on the committee's Web site.