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JUNE 2007

The Need to Reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

By US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings

Few education issues will have as great an impact on the civic and economic future of our country as the reauthorization of NCLB. We continue to hear critics of NCLB saying that our focus on reading and math distracts from learning in other subjects. How will students succeed in history or science without mastering reading and math? We all know that reading and math are requisite gateways to learning other subjects, and we are seeing more and more evidence of that.

The new NAEP data show that young students are making gains in both history and civics. The report on U.S. History shows increased scores across the board and a narrowing achievement gap in the 4th grade. Similarly, in the report on civics, 4th grade students showed improved scores and a narrowing gap between white and Hispanic students. These reports confirm what common sense tells us: students with stronger reading skills will be better able to read and comprehend history and other subjects.

I’ve been working with President Bush on education issues like these for a long time. Much has changed since our days in Texas, but when it comes to education, we continue to be guided by the same core principles: first, scientific research must be used to inform our education practices, policies, and investments. The Reading First program grew out of twenty years of research and now helps two million elementary school students make real gains in fluency and comprehension.

Second, parents know what’s best for their children, especially now that they are armed with data and information. I’m speaking as the Secretary of Education and also as the mom of two school-age daughters. Because we believe in the wisdom of parents and families, we have done more than any previous Administration to support a robust expansion of school choice options. Thanks to the first-ever federally funded Opportunity Scholarship program, more than 1,800 Washington DC students from economically disadvantaged families have been given the chance to attend 58 private schools. We have also supported the charter movement with significant resources for school start-ups and facilities. Charters act as laboratories for best practices.

Three, we need standards, and folks at the State and local level should set them. I am not—repeat, not—trying to establish Federal standards and neither is NCLB. But we are insisting upon local standards, for which schools must be accountable.

teachers make the single biggest difference in getting results for kids [Please see the centerfold of Education Update pages 12-13: emphasis added], so we must do everything we can to get excellent teachers in our schools. We need qualified teachers to deliver a rigorous curriculum that challenges students. NCLB sets a floor for achievement, not a ceiling.

The old solution to education challenges was to spend money and cross our fingers. Now, we can find out what actually works because we are measuring. It’s become a favorite refrain of mine, “What gets measured, gets done.” I’m even thinking about getting a tattoo.

The basic premise behind No Child Left Behind is that we expect results for Federal investments. Once some children were pushed to the margins, but this legislation set an historic goal to have every child reading and doing math on grade level by 2014.

We are already seeing progress in the early grades where we have focused our efforts. Consider the fact that according to the NAEP our younger readers have made more progress in five years than in the previous 28 years combined. We had a flat-line, and then, lo and behold, it started to pick up about five years ago.

Our work is not done. High school students have yet to see the gains that our young students have shown, and we must focus on the problem of turning around underperforming schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress for several years in a row. But we are in a better place to tackle these challenges because of NCLB. Now, all 50 states have accountability plans, and we have learned some lessons that will help guide us.

For example, our reauthorization proposals will increase options to turn around chronically underperforming schools. We propose to give superintendents and local officials more authority to make decisions about how their districts are run and who they’re hiring. This includes changing the rules and incentives to get the best teachers in these needy schools, regardless of limitations created by collective bargaining agreements. In addition, our proposals would allow local officials to reinvent struggling schools as public charters, regardless of arbitrary state caps.

For students caught in these schools, we want to create more choices, from enhanced free tutoring to the option of attending another public or private school through Promise Scholarships.

As part of NCLB reauthorization, we are also focusing on strengthening our high schools. We must change the fact that half of our Hispanic and African American students drop out of high school and only 9 percent of low-income students go on to earn college degrees by age 24. In New York City, there are more than ninety high schools where graduation is a 50/50 shot.

Our high schools often fail to supply our students with the knowledge they need to be good citizens and equip them with the tools they need to succeed in college and in an ever more dynamic workforce. That’s why we propose to emphasize science, math, and technology, expand access to AP courses, and train more good teachers to teach them. 

We will also do more to link high school courses with college expectations and employer needs. And we propose to build on the progress of our nation’s governors in calling for more accurate graduation rates.

If you’re committed to turning around our chronically underperforming schools, we must renew NCLB this year.

If you’re committed to fixing our high schools—reforming the drop out factories that threaten the civic and economic future of our country—then we must renew NCLB this year.

And if you’re committed to preserving the momentum for choice, local control, and flexibility, then we must renew NCLB this year.

We have a moral responsibility to give every student the opportunity to achieve. Only a good education can build the skills, habits of mind, and knowledge for children to grow into productive citizens. This idea goes back to our founding, and is part of what has always made America a place of innovation, durable democracy, and big dreams.#

Remarks delivered at the Manhattan Institute Education Reform Conference in NYC.



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