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Obama to Overhaul NCLB

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According to the front page of today's New York Times, the Obama administration is planning to overhaul No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Thank goodness!

While the specifics aren't in yet -- Team Obama likes to float its ideas before officially announcing them -- we now have an outline of what a new law might look like. Some of the pieces:

Eliminate the proficiency deadline for 2014. Good idea! NCLB required that every child in America be proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- including kids with learning disabilities and many kids who are new to English. A wonderful goal, but (sadly) not realistic -- and everyone knew it. We need high but realistic goals.

Stop rating schools based on Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Another good idea! Since 2002, schools have been graded primarily on their progress towards that unreachable 100% goal. The insanity of this system created stress and dysfunction in schools across the country, hurting students. We need meaningful metrics.

Instead, adopt national "college- or career-readiness" goals. This could be a great idea -- the National Governor's Association is already working on very well-thought-out college-readiness standards.

The caveat: we need to make sure that "career readiness" actually means "readiness for a career," not a back door to avoid educating the children we're currently failing to educate. Kids in the career track should be prepared for a career (e.g. a trade) that's viable in their local economy for the foreseeable future, and disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income students cannot be shunted into "career" tracks. We need high standards for all children.

Finance schools based on academic progress, not student enrollment. Whoa. This is a big one, and it could radically change the way education works in America. I want to see the fine print before I give it up a thumbs-up or down.

Why? The first mention of this plan in the Times sounds like more NCLB: punish failing schools. Schools are already scrapped for cash -- when I was a teacher my colleagues and I each spent over $500 a year on supplies for our classrooms -- and taking money away from struggling schools is unlikely to help kids.

But another part of the article says the plan will offer:

"...recognition to those that are succeeding and ... large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools."

Now that makes sense! As every teacher knows, relentless punishment creates despair, but incentives -- even small ones -- can work wonders.

My hunch is that schools are like kids -- we do right by them when we set high standards, reward the ones who succeed and help the ones who are struggling. Let's hope this new bill does that. We've learned something from eight years of NCLB, right?