After 10 Years, It’s Time for a New NCLB

The following op-ed appeared in the January 8, 2012 edition of the Washington Post.

Ten years ago today, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law has improved American education in some ways, but it also still has flaws that need to be fixed.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the first time exposed achievement gaps and created a conversation about how to close them. The law has held schools accountable for the performance of all students no matter their race, income level, English-proficiency or disability. Schools can no longer point to average scores while hiding an achievement gap that is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

But NCLB has significant flaws. It created an artificial goal of proficiency that encouraged states to set low standards to make it easier for students to meet the goal. The act’s emphasis on test scores as the primary measure of school performance has narrowed the curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all accountability system has mislabeled schools as failures even if their students are demonstrating real academic growth. The law is overly prescriptive and doesn’t allow districts to create improvement plans based on their unique needs. It also has not supported states as they create teacher evaluation systems that use multiple measures to identify highly effective teachers and support the instructional improvement of all teachers.

The question today is how to build on NCLB’s success and fix its problems. Fortunately, states are leading the way. In Washington, we need to do everything we can to support their work.

Over the past two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have shown tremendous courage by raising their academic standards to measure whether students are truly prepared for success in college and careers. To measure students’ progress toward those standards, 44 states and the District are working together to create assessments based on the common set of standards developed by educators, governors and state education chiefs. What’s more, states and school districts have adopted bold and comprehensive reforms to support academic achievement for all students. These reforms are improving teacher and principal evaluation and support, as well as turning around low-performing schools and expanding access to high-quality schools.

Unfortunately, the law is unintentionally creating barriers for these reforms. States that have chosen to raise standards will soon need to explain why student scores are dropping. Instead, they should be able to highlight students’ academic growth. School districts are stuck using NCLB’s definition of a highly qualified teacher based solely on paper credentials, without taking into account the teacher’s ability to improve student learning. And the law continues to encourage schools to narrow curriculum at the expense of important subjects such as history, civics, science, the arts and physical education. After 10 years of these flawed policies, our nation’s teachers and students deserve better.

President Obama is offering states flexibility from NCLB in exchange for comprehensive plans to raise standards; to create fair, flexible and focused accountability systems; and to improve systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support. This flexibility will not give states a pass on accountability. It will demand real reform.

So far, 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have expressed interest in this flexibility. The Education Department is working with the first group of applicants.

Although Congress has begun the process of reauthorizing NCLB, we can’t wait for the extended legislative process to be completed. States and school districts need relief from NCLB right now.

Congress has yet to act even though No Child Left Behind is four years overdue for renewal. Education reform requires elected officials from both sides of the aisle to come together. We can’t let partisan politics stand in the way.

One way or another, NCLB needs significant changes. Our states and schools deserve flexibility from its teach-to-the-test culture and one-size-fits-all accountability system.

Even as we work with states to offer flexibility from existing law, the Obama administration will support a bipartisan effort by Congress to create a law that supports a well-rounded education while holding schools, districts and states accountable for results.

We all need to work together so that 10 years from now, America’s children will have the sort of federal education law they so richly deserve — one that challenges them to achieve to high standards, and provides them with the highly effective teachers and principals who can prepare them for success in college and the workforce.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Navigating Technology and Art at a School of Contradictions

In the 19th Century, the London Bridge was a marvel of technology and an example of artistic creativity, and nearly a century later, one innovative American town dismantled the original masonry of the London Bridge and rebuilt it to handle modern traffic.

Nautilus Elementary School signToday, four miles from where the bridge now sits in Lake Havasu, Az., Nautilus Elementary is using a 21st Century technology and art to help improve teaching and student learning. For all its success, the U.S. Department of Education named Nautilus Elementary School a 2011 Blue Ribbon school.

At the school, technology is helping teachers use performance data to improve education for their students. “Nautilus stands out because from the very beginning, we took standards-based education very seriously,” said Margee Chieffo, a kindergarten teacher. “We taught…to the standards, measured student achievement…then went back and re-taught things that were not comprehensively learned by students.”

To do this, students use “electronic clickers”—small remotes, with which they can answer questions in class—and other tools that give immediate feedback on whether or not individual students and the class as a whole understand an idea or process. With this information, a teacher can focus on particular areas that students are having a hard time grasping.  The school also uses an online program to track student performance and keep teachers and parents up to date.  This management software allows teachers to post and parents to see their child’s grades online at any time.  Through this system, parents can also view video tutorials, and teachers and administrators have access to educational tools.

Teachers, school staff, parents and community leaders join Nautilus Elementary students at the National Blue Ribbon School Award ceremony

While performance measurement and its data is key to designing lessons, the faculty sees teaching as an art to reach each child as an individual person. “My philosophy is this: I don’t teach subjects. I teach children,” said Chieffo.

Carolyn Myers, a 4th grade teacher, expands on teaching as an art: “We know which teachers are better at technology, which are strong in reading strategies, phonics, math. We say, ‘Can you help me with this? I’m just not reaching this child.’ ”

Nautilus Elementary’s students are enthusiastic when giving their perspectives. Andrew, a 6th grader, said, “We have…great teachers. They encourage us to do our best.” Gabby, also a 6th grader, gave her view on why the school succeeds. “Everyone’s like a family…we’re all really close.” Laurel, a 3rd grader, agreed with her 6th grade friends and gave the bottom line on going to school at Nautilus. “We get smarter by the minute.”

Christie Olsen, who teaches a 5th and 6th grade-blended class, recognizes that a school needs the community.  A desert town with the London Bridge and a school named after a sea creature would be expected to have a school that is innovative. That’s the case with Nautilus Elementary—bringing technology and art together to win the Blue Ribbon Award.

Joe Barison

Joe Barison works in ED’s San Francisco regional office.

Arne on Dumbing Down Standards and the Next Generation of Assessments

Secretary Duncan sits down several times a month to answer questions he receives via his Facebook page. This past week, Arne answered questions that had been received on Facebook’s Facebook in Education page.

In the video, Arne responds to a question asking why we as a country allowed standards in schools to be “dummied down.” Secretary Duncan explains that dumbed-down standards are an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but that over the last two and a half years, 44 states have raised standards and are working to level the playing field for students.

Arne also responds to a question about the need for a new generation of assessments. Duncan notes ED is helping fund two consortia of states that are providing leadership and working together to develop new assessments that will go beyond today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests that only measure basic skills. These new assessments will support good teaching by measuring crticial thinking skills and complex student learning.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Join the conversation on Arne’s Facebook page or leave a comment below.

What NCLB Flexibility Means for You

Earlier today President Obama provided details on how states can get relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act- or No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The new flexibility supports local and state education reform across the country in exchange for serious state-led efforts to close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.

Here’s how flexibility may affect you:

For Teachers:

ESEA flexibility will move accountability systems toward decisions that are based on student growth and progress. They will consider more than a single test score measured against an arbitrary proficiency level.  States will be able to look comprehensively at how schools are serving their students and communities, in areas like school climate, access to rigorous coursework, and providing a well-rounded education.

Flexibility also will support States and districts in fixing the broken teacher evaluation systems, by allowing for the use of multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including peer reviews, principal observation, portfolios, and student work.

For Parents:

ESEA Flexibility will let States create honest accountability and support systems that require real change in the worst performing schools, allow for locally tailored solutions based on individual school needs, and recognize schools for success. When schools fall short, parents will know that school leaders will adopt targeted and focused strategies for the students most at risk.

The accountability system also will end the over-emphasis on testing. Parents will like this change for the same reasons that teachers will – it will promote a well-rounded curriculum while giving a fair and responsible assessment of their school’s success in preparing students for college and careers.

For Students:

Under ESEA flexibility, States will begin to move beyond the bubble tests and dumbed-down standards that are based on arbitrary standards of proficiency. By measuring student growth and critical thinking, new assessments will inspire better teaching and greater student engagement across a well-rounded curriculum. By setting standards based on college- and career-readiness, States will challenge students to make progress toward a goal that will prepare them for success in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Click here to download our FAQ about ESEA flexibility (MS Word), and for more detailed information visit

Back-to-School Bus Heads to the Great Lakes

During last week’s #AskArne Twitter Town Hall, Sarah, a third grade teacher, asked if it is possible for Arne to “tour and sponsor real town halls with educators.” This week, ED announced that Secretary Duncan and his senior staff will be holding more than 50 such events next week.

Secretary Duncan stops in New York during last year's back-to-school bus tour.

Starting on Wednesday, September 7, Secretary Duncan and senior ED staff will head to the Great Lakes Region for a Back-to-School Bus Tour. Arne will be making stops in Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Merrillville, Ind., Milwaukee and Chicago, and senior ED officials will be hosting dozens of events throughout the Midwest. The theme of the tour is “Education and the Economy: Investing in Our Future.”

Arne will be meeting with educators and talking with students, parents, administrators, and community stakeholders. Among the topics that Secretary Duncan and senior staff will discuss include the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, K-12 reform, transforming the teaching profession, civil rights enforcement, efforts to better serve students with disabilities and English Language Learners, Promise Neighborhoods, the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, STEM education, increasing college access and attainment as well as vocational and adult education.

Click here for additional details on Secretary Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour stops.

You can follow the progress of this year’s Back-to-School tour right here at the ED Blog, by following #EDTour11 on Twitter, and by signing up for email updates from ED and Secretary Duncan.

Top 5 Questions About NCLB Flexibility

“We’re still hopeful that Congress can continue its work this fall. In the meantime, states and districts have an opportunity to move forward,” said Secretary Duncan in a statement earlier today announcing the Obama Administration’s plan to provide a process for states to receive flexibility under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.  While more details on the flexibility plan are forthcoming, here is a list of the top five questions about the announcement we are hearing.

1. Why now?

Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is four years late. The Obama administration introduced its Blueprint for Reform sixteen months ago, and President Obama called on Congress in March to finish a bill before the start of the new school year. States, districts, schools and most importantly students cannot wait another school year for this broken law to be fixed.

2. Does the administration’s plan replace Congressional reauthorization?

No, the plan to provide flexibility does not replace a comprehensive reauthorization from Congress. The administration’s plan will provide flexibility to districts and schools to improve student achievement by raising standards while Congress continues to work on reauthorization.

3. Does this regulatory flexibility package offer blanket flexibility to states and districts?

While all states will be eligible for this regulatory flexibility, only states that agree to meet a high bar will receive the flexibility they need to improve education on the ground for students. States granted flexibility would be expected to maintain rigorous accountability, including for subgroups of students.

4. Is there legal authority for the Department to allow this flexibility?

Section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act) allows the Secretary to waive certain statutory or regulatory requirements of the ESEA.

5. When will this flexibility have an impact on the ground?

We will continue to gather ideas from states in the coming month and plan to roll out details of the package in mid-September. We anticipate that this flexibility will begin to have an impact at the end of the 2011-2012 school year and have the most significant impact beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.


Secretary Duncan on Common Core Standards and the Next Generation of Assessments

Secretary Duncan recently responded to several questions asked via his Facebook page, including a question from Annie about Common Core standards. The Secretary praised the courageous work of states that are refusing to dumb down standards and are working to expand the depth and breadth of academic programs. Duncan encouraged states to not just focus on standards, but to “have a well-rounded curriculum to make sure all of our children have access to a wide range of subjects.”

The Secretary also answered a question regarding the need for a “new generation” of assessments to evaluate student progress. While improving assessments is a decision that will be made on the state and local level, Secretary Duncan emphasized that ED contributed almost $350 million in grants to 44 states who are collaborating on improved assessments.

Continue the conversation on Secretary Duncan’s Facebook page, on Twitter and in the comments below.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Ben Firke is an intern in the office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education

Aligning the GED to College and Career Readiness

The New York Department of Education and the sponsors of the General Educational Development program yesterday took an important step in the effort to raise expectations for all students.

At an alternative education center for youth and adults in Manhattan, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Molly Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, which sponsors the GED, announced the start of a pilot program to align expectations for GED program to standards that prepare participants for success in college and careers.

“The GED needs to be more than a substitute for a high school diploma. It needs to be a passport to college and careers,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the event. “This pilot project will demonstrate ways to ensure that all individuals who pass the GED are prepared to succeed in college and careers.”

The pilot project is building on the state-led effort that has created a common core of standards in math and English. So far, 40 states and the District of Columbia this year have adopted the Common Core standards in math and English.

Now, New York City is leading the way to make these standards a game-changer for adults in the GED program. The 500,000 adult learners who pass the GED exam every year deserve to know whether they truly are ready to succeed in college and careers.

The success of our adult learners is essential for the economic future of our country. President Obama has set a goal that the United States once again be first in the world in college completion by the end of the decade. To reach that goal, we will need to add 8 million new graduates over the next decade. We will succeed only if adult learners enter postsecondary schools at record rates and complete their degrees.

Just as our high schools award diplomas that guarantee students are ready for college and careers, the GED has to raise its standards so that adult learners are prepared for the challenges of postsecondary education and to work in the 21st Century economy.

Bursting the Bubble Tests

Secretary Duncan, state education leaders and ED staff spoke to reporters today to announce $330 million in grants to develop better student assessments.

Secretary Duncan, state education leaders and ED staff spoke to reporters today to announce $330 million in grants to develop better student assessments.

Almost everywhere Secretary Duncan goes, complaints about “bubble tests” bubble up. Teachers are usually the first ones to bring up their issues with the ways states currently assess their students. We heard these criticisms over and over on our recent “Courage in the Classroom” tour.

“The number-one complaint I heard from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn’t measure what really matters,” Arne said on a call with reporters this afternoon where he announced $330 million in grants from the Race to the Top program so states can develop a new generation of more sophisticated assessments. The grants aim to give teachers the assessments they’ve been asking for—tests that measure students’ critical thinking and other higher-level skills, gauge student growth over the course of a school year and provide ongoing feedback to teachers so they can adjust their approaches.

What’s unique about the Race to the Top assessment grants is who gets them—not individual states, but large coalitions of states that will work together to develop common assessments measuring college and career readiness. Sharing the work will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, Arne said.

“Fifty states doing this individually (as they have historically done) has made no sense, whatsoever,” he said. All together, the 44 states in the funded coalitions, along with the District of Columbia, serve 85 percent of the nation’s public school students—and states not participating in a consortium are free to use the assessments that are developed.

The new generation of tests—Arne dubbed them “Assessments 2.0″—will be aligned to the higher standards that were recently developed by governors and chief state school officers and have been adopted by 36 states. The tests will assess students’ knowledge of mathematics and English language arts from third grade through high school. The assessments will be ready for use by the 2014-15 school year.

These more advanced assessments will replace tests currently in use and shouldn’t result in more time devoted to testing. “These tests will give us the tools to get better and smarter,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. In addition, he said, the tests will be “more thoughtful and more connected” to the more streamlined college- and career-ready standards that states have developed together.

CNN Town Hall on Fixing America’s Schools

CNN Town Hall on Fixing America’s Schools

Secretary Arne Duncan answered questions about standardized testing, the cost of college, and other topics last week in Atlanta in an education town hall with parents, teachers, and students.

CNN sponsored the town hall, “Fixing America’s Schools,” which was hosted by CNN news anchor and reporter Don Lemon.  The program was videotaped at Carver Early College High School.

A high school teacher expressed concern that “we are raising a nation of test-takers” and asked how the Administration’s proposals for improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would address the situation.  A student asked about programs for youth in trouble with the law.  And a parent wondered about federal assistance for college in a time of steadily increasing tuition costs.

One former Atlanta teacher in the audience wanted to know how we can encourage educators to go “outside the box and be creative in their teaching so they can reach all needs of the students.”

“I think teachers are unsung heroes,” Secretary Duncan answered.  “The vast majority of teachers do an extraordinary job and are working unbelievably hard.  We need to do a much better job of supporting those teachers, mentoring them, providing meaningful professional development, meaningful career ladders.”

The program was taped on Friday, April 16, and broadcast on Saturday and Sunday, April 17 and 18.

For video excerpts, go to CNN’s website at and

More Photos

Higher Standards, Better Tests, Race to the Top

Last night Secretary Arne Duncan pledged to help pay for the development of assessments aligned with the higher common standards that 49 states and territories are developing. In remarks at the Governors Education Symposium in Cary, NC, he said:

“Once new standards are set and adopted, you need to create new tests that measure whether students are meeting those standards. Tonight I am announcing that the Obama administration will help pay for the costs of developing those tests…. The administration will dedicate up to $350 million…to help develop new assessments.”

Duncan also discussed the Race to the Top Fund, which will hold a national competition this year to support state efforts to improve student learning. These grants will focus on four reforms: using data to inform instruction, raising standards, turning around historically low-performing schools, and improving teacher and principal quality.

He will give two more major policy speeches leading up to the request for proposals: on school turnarounds June 22 at the the National Charter School Conference in Washington, DC, and teacher quality July 2 at the National Education Association annual meeting in San Diego. (He spoke last week on using data.)

Read last night’s speech or listen to it. See the press release, which includes a time line for Race to the Top.

ED Staff

Duncan Lauds State Standards Initiative

Secretary Arne Duncan praised an effort announced today to create common core state standards in math and language arts. “This is a giant step,” he said of the initiative, which includes 46 states and 3 territories and is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Why is this effort so important? Here’s what Duncan said three days ago at the National Press Club:

“What we have had as a country…[is] a race to the bottom. We have 50 different standards, 50 different goal posts. And due to political pressure, those have been dumbed down….”

“When children are told they are ‘meeting a state standard,’ the logical assumption for that child or for that parent is to think they are on-track to be successful. But because these standards have been dummied down and lowered so much in so many places, when a child is ‘meeting the state standard’ they are in fact barely able to graduate from high school. And they are absolutely inadequately prepared to go to a competitive university, let alone graduate.

“And so we have to stop lying to children. We have to tell them the truth. We have to be transparent about our data. We have to raise the bar so that every child knows on every step of their educational trajectory what they’re going to do.”

See additional excerpts from his remarks at the National Press Club, or watch the video of the full speech. See the press release from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers on the Common Core State Standards Initiative.