Maureen Downey: ‘Every child counts’

American schools have squirmed under the heel of the No Child Left Behind Act for a decade now. Are they ready for a sleeker, less onerous model of education reform, an Every Child Counts law?

That may be coming, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Congress is about to delve into a rewrite of the controversial No Child Left Behind law that was the signature legislation of the Bush White House.

In a recent media call on the law, Senate education leaders joined Duncan in recommending greater flexibility, increased state and local control and a federal focus on the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s schools.

The suggestion was also made for a new name for the much-disparaged No Child law, which dramatically enlarged the federal presence in the schoolhouse.

Enzi said there’s support for falling back on the admittedly bland generic name for the education funding bill, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “That will come out later as we figure it out,” he said.

But it was clear that Harkin has already given a new name a bit of thought, indicating that he favored something along the lines of “Every Child Counts.”

“Every child needs to have the opportunity to learn and progress,” said the Iowa senator. “It seems to me that what we are talking about is every child counts.”

Most of the comments from the senators focused on softening the federal relationship with local schools, from that of a stern and demanding patriarch to a supportive and kindly uncle.

As Duncan described it, “We want to be an engine of innovation rather than a compliance-driven bureaucracy.”

And the senators agreed.

“I don’t want us to become a national school board. I support national standards but I don’t think the federal government should set them,” said Alexander, a former education secretary.

Duncan maintained a conciliatory tone, likely because he now has to deal with a divided Congress that includes members who would prefer to see his agency dissolved.

“We all agree that NCLB has many flaws, from mislabeling to overreach to lowering standards,” said Duncan. “On many issues, Democrats and Republicans share a common-sense agenda. We all want a fair accountability system. Nobody likes labeling schools as failing even as they are making significant gains.”

While No Child is credited with forcing schools to pay attention to minorities and students with special needs, long ignored in many classrooms, it is also blamed for the testing frenzy.

No Child Left Behind mandated annual testing against targeted goals. If schools didn’t reach their goals and missed making Adequate Yearly Progress, they faced escalating consequences.

“We need laws that provide most schools with flexibility on how to improve and accelerate student achievement,” said Duncan. “We support a narrowing, more targeted role for the federal government.”

One of the major flaws of No Child, according to Duncan, was that it overburdened schools with process while setting fuzzy goals.

“It was tight on how you got there, but loose on the goals,” he said.

Changes in the law must fix the punitive accountability system, target interventions to lower performing schools, return more control to locals and advance teacher evaluation tools, said Harkin.

(To the delight of parents, the senator also called for a well-rounded curriculum for American schools, including arts, music and physical education. However, he did not explain who would pay for it.)

Sen. Enzi said the key shortcomings in the law that need to be modified in the reauthorization include:

● Sanctions in the law negatively impact rural schools more, as do the requirements to have highly qualified teachers in all classrooms.

Enzi said rural schools are often far from other schools, and that makes it hard to comply with provisions permitting students to transfer out of failing schools.

● Local flexibility is limited, and the use of federal dollars is too restrictive. “We have a one-size-fits-all mentality in it. And parents are feeling they are left out of the equation,” said Enzi.

● The 100 percent proficiency goal by 2013-2014 is unrealistic.

● The dozens and dozens of performance measures for Adequate Yearly Progress result in every school getting a failing grade at some point, said Enzi.

● “There is too much testing and nobody knows what results mean,” he said.

The Republicans and the Democrats maintain that they can overcome their political differences and craft a new, better education law.

“From meetings we had ... there has been a lot of agreement,” said Alexander. “Every major education bill has been bipartisan and that has been since the early ’60s.”