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Experts Divided over Reform Blueprint

The president's proposed reauthorization of NCLB is welcome, but with many buts.

On March 15 President Obama presented to Congress his "Blueprint for Reform," which seeks to reform No Child Left Behind through four main areas of improvement.

Education professionals' response to the Blueprint ranges extensively—many disagree with the plan and largely top-down approach to reformation, while recognizing the need for change.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, says the Blueprint is "a vast improvement over the flawed No Child Left Behind program, which it would now replace."

The first objective in the plan involves teacher and principal effectiveness. The Blueprint lays out the need for strong teachers and principals in every school and classroom—especially underperforming schools. Some methods of achieving this goal include improving existing formula grants and instituting competitive grants for states and schools that create new programs aiming to help find, place, assess, and reward strong teachers and principals.

The proposal also highlights the need for each state to clarify what is expected from teachers and principals by defining terms such as "highly effective teacher" and "highly effective principal" as well as implementing effective evaluation methods.

The second objective is to more actively include parents and families in their children's education by providing them with information about their children's learning abilities, activities in the classroom, and potential higher education or professional options. "We must recognize the importance of communities and families in supporting their children's education, because a parent is a child's first teacher," the report states.

This objective, however, is left vague, as the report does not specifically outline how the goal will be achieved. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, is disappointed in the plan for that reason. "We know that it takes all stakeholders working together to improve our schools," Van Roekel says. The current plan, however, does not allow parents enough participation. "There is no attempt in the Blueprint to support parents' efforts to be more involved in their children's education."

The plan spends relatively little time expressly stating the intended role of parents and how information will be distributed. Charles J. Saylors, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, says, "The ESEA Blueprint removes essential mechanisms for engaging parents in the education of their children. The Blueprint limits parent engagement to - programs that already require parent involvement under the current law."

Next, the plan recognizes the need for "implementing college- and career-ready standards and developing improved assessments aligned with those standards." Standards for all students and schools will be raised, with a specific focus on improving low-performing schools. The main objective is preparing high school students for college or a career upon graduation.

The plan also highlights the need for more comprehensive assessment methods, including ensuring accountability at the local and state levels, assessing attendance and graduation rates, and evaluating standardized test results. This is perhaps the most controversial part of the plan for education professionals, many of whom are skeptical of the outlined efforts intended to improve assessment methods.

Those that successfully close achievement gaps or reach performance targets will be labeled "reward" schools, districts or states, and will be given additional funding. "The accountability system of this Blueprint still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers," Van Roekel says. "We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the Blueprint requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario."

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says the plan is an improvement over the original NCLB law, particularly in its attempts to improve the accountability systems, but continues that schools should not have to use assessments that have been proven to be faulty. "States and districts should be allowed to use their own benchmarking assessments until new systems are in place, including tests that measure growth and progress over time," Domenech says.

Finally, the plan seeks to provide funding, support and intervention for the lowest-performing schools to improve student achievement. Greater accountability, formula grants and improvement-based reward funding, and support for diverse learners will be used to improve low-performing schools. "The Blueprint would upgrade NCLB by holding schools accountable not just for test scores but for graduation rates as well," Wise says. "It also provides a more specific menu of interventions to turn around the lowest-performing schools."

Domenech adds that "education is a civil right" and a child's civil rights should not be part of a competition. "We object to the decision to shift a significantly larger proportion of dollars into competitive grant programs," he says. "Rather than maintaining or cutting formula funding under ESEA, we urge the administration and Congress to grow formula grants to provide a more reliable stream of funding to local school districts."

If schools and districts still fail to improve, the plan outlines four models of reforming schools, ranging from the most moderate, the "transformation model," which includes replacing the principal, strengthening staff, and implementing new research-based instructional programs, to the most extreme, the "school-closure model," which entails closing the school completely and enrolling students in a higher-achieving school.

Some think these models need to be rethought. "More local school district flexibility is needed for how the lowest-performing schools are turned around, including not automatically replacing principals," says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "There should be less reliance on competitive grants as opposed to formula grants."

Domenech says that AASA recommends that the fifth turnaround option, "a research-based intervention model, reserved in the Blueprint for ‘reward' districts, be made available to the lowest-performing districts as well." He adds that the Blueprint proposes the option of removing the superintendent from "challenge" districts, which is unnecessary given that superintendents are already held accountable and can be removed by their board members.

And Domenech calls for more funding. "The Blueprint would require schools to collect, interpret and use a tremendous amount of data," he says. "Additional funding must be provided to schools for this activity, or the data collection amounts to an unfunded mandate for school districts."

The Blueprint also includes a section on environmental education, though it does not give specific details of what an environmental education would entail, according to Danielle LeSure, senior legislative representative of the National Wildlife Federation's National Advocacy Center. The Blueprint leaves it to states, districts, and non-profit partners to define such education during the grant process.

The Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan effort to build support for improvements in federal education policy to ensure academic achievement and close the achievement gap, applauds the plan. "Many of the Blueprint's top-line priorities align with those that have been advanced by the commission, including teacher and principal effectiveness measures primarily focused on student achievement, more aggressive interventions in chronically low-performing schools, and higher expectations for students," the group stated in a release. "However, important details remain to be seen in all of these areas, including clarity on a strong accountability framework to drive improved performance."

While education experts are clearly polarized on the initial Blueprint proposal, serious efforts are being made to build off of and improve on former federal education legislation. "If federal policy is like fixing a car, NCLB had only a hammer and a screwdriver in the toolbox. The ESEA Blueprint gives the mechanic many more tools as well as flexibility on how to use them," says Wise.

The Blueprint now rests in the hands of Congress, which will either accept or reject it as well as decide whether or not to reauthorize ESEA.