Let’s agree on what we agree on and get that done

Change is coming from Washington D.C., change that will have an impact on every US public school in the United States.

That was clear when Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education and Al Franken, one of Minnesota’s US Senators, spoke to several hundred Minnesotans last wekk. They were discussing school leadership and possible revisions in the federal “No Child Left Behind (NCLB)” law. Both were part of a panel at Daytons Bluff Elementary School in St. Paul.

Both officials are eager to see changes in the law. As Franken put it, “Let’s agree on what we agree on, and get that done!”

Duncan and Franken, who sits on a US Senate Committee that deals with education issues, emphasized that NCLB must change. As Duncan put it, “We can’t afford to have a law that is an impediment to progress.” Part of the push for revision is because the law:

  • Insists that 100 percent of a school’s students must be proficient by 2014. Almost everyone agrees will not happen unless the standards for proficiency are quite low.
  • Creates a list of schools in each state that need improvement. Some schools have been placed on the “needs improvement” list because students with special needs have not made enough improvement.

Sen. Franken described a constant theme he hears when visiting schools throughout Minnesota: “We have to change NCLB and we have to do it soon.” Another consistent comment he hears is that Minnesota’s current statewide testing program is not especially helpful for students, families or educators. That’s because results of the statewide reading, writing and math tests don’t arrive in schools until summer, after the school year ended.

Franken believes that a better approach comes via tests given on a computer. In many cases, those results are available almost instantly. That means teachers can share the results with students and families during the school year. Teachers also can use results to modify what they are doing. If all or most students show they understand an idea or have mastered the skill, the teacher can move on. If not, more attention needs to be given.

Computers and other technology also can help teachers individualize instruction for students. But whether the computer is used to help students learn, or help measure what students have learned, a school needs to have enough computers and access to high speed Internet.

Both Franken and Duncan emphasized the importance of rewarding schools that show improvements in student achievement. They also want to see greater clarity on what students should be learning, and greater autonomy at the school level for how teachers help students achieve these goals. Based on comments I’ve read from Minnesota Congressman John Kline, a Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee, there is bipartisan agreement on those ideas.

Duncan and Franken hope that the NCLB revisions can be completed before the 2011-12 school year starts. I hope this happens. A clearer, wiser law will help reduce frustration and increase learning. Franken is right: “Let’s agree on what we agree on, and get this done!”