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Will NCLB Rewrite Have the Teeth to Improve Schools?

If you are monitoring inside-the-Beltway maneuverings around the No Child Left Behind Act, this could be an interesting week for you. You probably already know that while the House has been taking a piecemeal approach to renewing this law, Senate leaders have been taking a comprehensive approach. And word is that a draft is about to be released.

As my colleague Alyson Klein over at Politics K-12 reported last Friday, the Democratic chair and the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have been working on this draft for months. She outlines some of the key provisions in her blog post.

This one certainly caught my eye:

"States would not have to set hard-and-fast performance targets, and there would be no end-game in mind akin to the 2013-14 deadline for student proficiency in the current law, or even the 2020 'goal' in the administration's blueprint, released in March 2010," Alyson reports. "Instead, schools would have to show 'continuous improvement' for all students, and for particular subgroups."

Cue the sigh of relief from states, which have been longing for relief from those rules. But cue, also, worries in some quarters that without concrete targets or real consequences, the law lacks the teeth required for real school improvement.

Keep in mind that this is a draft, so its language is in flux. But Democrats for Education Reform already likened the draft's "continuous improvement" standard to saying you're losing weight without ever getting on the scale. And the National Council of La Raza said yesterday that it's worried that schools won't be under the necessary pressure to do right by NCLB's "subgroups," such as low-income and minority students and English learners.

Tom Harkin, the Senate education committee chair who co-led the writing of the draft, said in an essay on Politico yesterday that the bill "aims for a federal role that does fewer things—more effectively."

While the consequences-based approach of NCLB never lacked for critics, the new approach of replacing sanctions with flexibility and incentives for states will have its share, as well. They are concerned about whether the incentives, combined with the shaming power of those annual disaggregated report cards, will be enough to produce the effectiveness that Harkin trumpets.

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