This year, the Obama administration will revamp No Child Left Behind, President Bush's blueprint for education policy, but Minnesota is still waiting to see how it could affect education in the state.
Obama has signaled its desire for big changes. For one, the name 'No Child Left Behind' will be dropped. Other changes were outlined in the budget proposal the president sent to Congress yesterday, a budget that includes more education spending.
A failing system
For an example of what's wrong with the current law, consider the example laid out by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan:
A child enters the sixth grade but can only read at the third-grade level. After a year of hard work and perseverance, the child boosts his reading by two grade levels.
Under the current No Child Left Behind law, the school has failed that student because the child is only reading at a fifth grade level.
"They've had two years of growth for a year's instruction," Duncan told reporters. "Not only is that teacher not a failure; I would argue that teacher's an extraordinary teacher."
Under some of the ideas Duncan is proposing, the teacher in that example would get kudos and possibly even a pay bump because that child displayed such impressive personal growth--even if he didn't necessarily pass all the right tests.
Duncan credits No Child Left Behind with identifying children who need the most help, but he says the law doesn't do enough to reward progress. The current law has resulted in more than half of Minnesota's schools to be labeled as 'failing' -- a framework that critics say will eventually lead to every single school in the nation to be considered failing by 2014.
The current law requires every single student to be proficient by 2014, which is a source of ire for many education officials who say it's an impossible mark to reach. Duncan refused to say if he supports getting rid of that deadline, instead focusing on broad themes, like the idea that the rewritten law should focus less on punishing failing schools and more on rewarding the successful ones.
States wait for details
Minnesota's Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says Duncan has been saying a lot of promising things, but she's waiting for specifics.
"I'm not opposed at this point to anything the Secretary of Education is proposing, it's just we don't have a lot of detail on how it would be implemented," she said.
One of the people who will help re-write No Child Left Behind is Minnesota Congressman John Kline. As the top-ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor committee, Kline said he likes Secretary Duncan's wish for a bi-partisan bill. But he said one concern is whether too much local policy might be dictated from Washington.
"I am worried that the federal government can put a lot of hoops in there and, once again, I'd hate for the schools in Minnesota to be jumping through some unnecessary hoops that the federal government has put in place," he said.
That concern also was raised yesterday by the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, in a statement about the re-write. The union said more over-reaching and over-regulation by the feds would just be repeating the mistakes of No Child Left Behind.
It is possible, though, that some of the changes in the federal law won't affect Minnesota as much as they might in other states. President Obama, for example, is a strong supporter of charter schools. That could mean big changes for a state like Alabama, which currently doesn't allow them. But Minnesota was the first state to have charter schools.
Charlie Kyte, with the Minnesota School Administrators Association, also points to academic standards, which the feds want to strengthen. Right now, most states are working to develop common standards that would make it easier to compare test scores among states.
"We don't have the most rigorous standards in the nation, but we have pretty strong standards that aren't so impossible that other states couldn't get to them," Kyte said. "Ultimately, when they get those developed, I think for Minnesota we're going to kind of shrug our shoulders and say 'been there, doing that.'"
There's no timeline for making changes to No Child Left Behind, but Secretary Duncan has acknowledged that those revisions would have to come before the fall, when most lawmakers turn their attention to their own campaigns for re-election.