Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of moderate Democratic senators, including Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, announced plans Wednesday to reward schools for improvements in student performance and to give them more flexibility in meeting students' needs.
The senators want their recommendations included in this year's reauthorization of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which requires reading and math testing for students in grades 3-8 and in high school. The law is controversial because of its emphasis on test scores and the annual progress of schools rather than individual students.
"Everywhere I go, people are begging us to fix this law," Duncan said at a press conference at a pre-K-8 school in Washington. "We have to reward growth and gains, not just look at ... test scores. How much are schools, how much are students improving?"
Duncan and the senators hope to push the reauthorization through Congress before the August recess.
"If we don't change the obvious flaws in No Child Left Behind, and if we don't do it promptly, thoroughly and in a bipartisan way, we will be failing those very children who will gather here later today to read and to dream," Coons said at the press conference.
Carper said the recommendations stand a chance of advancing because the senators pushing them are "the bridge" between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
Senators who signed a "statement of principles" released Wednesday include Coons, Carper, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein of California, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Begich of Alaska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
They say the following policy changes are needed to fix NCLB:
•Reward growth and progress rather than treating all schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" the same, as NCLB does. Low-performing schools that persistently fail "must be closed down," they wrote.
•Provide additional funds to help turn around low-performing schools.
•Improve the system for recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders. Require teacher evaluations to measure how much students have learned, and pay teachers more for taking on additional responsibilities.
"We have to shift away from the current system where almost all teachers receive a high rating, without support," the statement of principles says.
•Continue to fund innovative approaches through competitive grants, and support charter and autonomous public schools.
•Promote more equitable funding among schools by requiring districts to report their expenditures at the school level -- rather than the district level -- when applying for Title I grants, which target districts with children living in concentrated poverty. The recommendation is designed to make the expenditure reports harder to skew.
Hagan and Bennet, members of the Senate committee responsible for education policy, are leading the moderate group's effort.
"It's got to be a bipartisan movement and I think we're hitting a crisis mode in this country," Hagan said. "We know we have to reform this. What really worries me is, a year in the life of a child cannot be replaced."