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Dusting off No Child Left Behind ... Finally

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke this morning at the first in a series of public meetings about the belated reauthorization of No Child Left Behind--although, because it's become a "toxic brand" in many circles, the Department of Education now prefers to call it by its official name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In his remarks to representatives of roughly 160 education, business, and other stakeholder groups, Duncan praised aspects of the law, which President Bush signed in 2002. He emphasized that it has helped expose achievement gaps and "expand the standards and accountability movement." But Duncan also underscored the urgent need to reform the much-debated law, which he said has "unfairly labeled many schools as failures" and allowed states to set their bars for academic success too low.

Under the current ESEA, states can largely devise their own academic standards, as well as the methods for meeting them, which has left a patchwork of weak policies blanketing the country--or created what Duncan likes to call a “race to the bottom.” Laying out his vision of the federal government's role in reauthorization, Duncan said the ESEA shouldn't offer a "prescription for," but rather, "a common definition of success." He said, "We should be tight on goals … [but] loose on means." In other words, for the first time, there should be national standards of academic success, but states should also have flexibility in deciding how best to reach them.* California and Nevada should have the same targets for students' progress in, say, reading and math skills, but they might have different methods of getting kids to those goals.

After Duncan exited the meeting, audience members lined up to offer comments and suggestions for the reauthorization to a handful of Department of Education officials. The Q&A was generally uneventful and bureaucratic--nebulous questions followed by even more nebulous answers. Two themes, however, caught my attention:

--Will the reauthorization of ESEA square with or expand the much-touted education provisions in this year's stimulus package? The stimulus has allowed the federal government to be relatively heavy-handed in nudging states toward innovative reforms and policy shifts, such as lifting charter school caps and tying teacher evaluations to student performance. Answer: Unclear--department officials refrained from making any guarantees one way or the other, but insisted that their Office of Innovation and Improvement is looking into it.

--Will the bill include language encouraging public-private partnerships between schools and community organizations? Several people posed this question--including one gentleman from the organization Policy Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, which has used blogging, text-messaging, rallies, and a twelve-person advisory board comprised entirely of black youth to emphasize the importance of education in three of the city's neighborhoods. And it's a valid question, considering how Obama and Duncan have both praised programs, like Harlem Children's Zone, that offer a community-based approach to education. The department's droopy answer: It's important, and we're looking into it.

In other words, nothing seems clear … yet. The department today wouldn't offer an exact timeline for when it hopes to deliver a proposed bill to Congress. (Reportedly, it's going to be early next year.) However, before the meeting got started, I heard several audience members speculating that reauthorization might move more quickly than people expect--particularly because the Obama administration's other priorities (ahem health care ahem) aren't sailing so smoothly and education enjoys some bipartisan support. "Full steam ahead [on ESEA] … because the other ship is going down," one audience member standing near me said quietly to another. "That's the real reason. We need a win."

(*Sidenote: A working group that's been charged with creating a set of national education standards released its initial proposal earlier this week, and it's sure to generate plenty of controversy. For more on the uphill slog to create national standards, see my discussion here.)