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Education law's promise falls short after 10 years

By Kimberly Hefling

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 8:25 a.m. MST

Under the law, watching movies and assigning irrelevant or no homework was no longer acceptable because suddenly someone was paying attention, said Charles Barone, a former aide to Miller who is director of federal policy with Democrats for Education Reform.

In low-performing urban schools, where teachers and principals once might have thrown up their hands and not known what to do, there was a new attitude along the lines of "we might not know what to do, but we've got to do something," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Both spoke at a recent forum on the law at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But m

any teachers and principals started to believe they were being judged on factors out of their control and in ways that were unfair.

Jennifer Ochoa, an eighth-grade literacy teacher in New York who works with low-performing students, said the law has hurt morale among educators as well as students, who feel they have to do well on a standardized test or are failures, no matter how much progress they make.

"Afterward, it didn't matter how far you came if you didn't make this outside goal," Ochoa said. "We started talking about kids in very different ways. We started talking about kids in statistical ways instead of human being terms."

How successful the law has been academically remains under debate.

Scores on a national assessment show significant gains in math among the fourth- and eighth-graders, with Hispanic and African-American fourth-graders performing approximately two grade levels higher today than when the law was passed, said Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

"You cannot dismiss these gains, and I think ... people just aren't willing to credit NCLB or accountability in general because of ideological and political preferences," Schneider said.

As the years went by, however, the growth has largely plateaued, Schneider said. Similar large gains were not shown in reading, and some experts say more progress was made in reading before the law was passed. There are still huge differences in the performance of African-American and Hispanic students compared with white students.

As the 2014 deadline draws closer, more schools are failing to meet federal standards, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy. Center officials said that's because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.

Some states had long put off the largest increases to avoid penalties.

In Washington, much of the political debate over the law centers on how much federal control the government should have. Some Republicans want to go so far as to close the Education Department and end federally-imposed annual testing.

Even among Democrats there's been some dissension. The Obama administration, for example, opposed the Senate bill passed in committee under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, because it said the measure didn't go far enough on accountability; Harkin said it wasn't a perfect bill, but compromise was necessary.

Many educators

are now looking to other factors such as online learning, an increased trend toward teacher evaluations tied to student performance, the federal Race to the Top competition that states have competed in, and the common core standards adopted in the vast majority of states as factors that could provide the next boost in education.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former education secretary, said he's hopeful Congress will do what's right and update No Child Left Behind, which became due for renewal in 2007.

"One of the things we ought to be able to do is fix No Child Left Behind," said Alexander, R-Tenn. "What we ought to do is set new realistic goals for it so that schools and schools can have those kinds of goals, and most importantly we need to move out of Washington and back to states and local communities decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing."

Associated Press writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling

Online:

Background on the law: http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml

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