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Educators expect Obama will alter No Child Left Behind rules
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

Jacquie Irizarry teaches algebra in an English as a Second Language class at Elgin High School. Local educators hope Barack Obama will make No Child Left Behind credit progress made by English-language learners and other subgroups.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 11/19/2008 12:02 AM

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One of President Bush's most noteworthy accomplishments - the No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2002 - might undergo some fundamental changes when President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

To many educators in the suburbs and across the country, that's a good thing - though they say the new administration shouldn't scrap the law entirely.

"We shouldn't abandon it," said Joyce Karon, an Illinois State Board of Education member from Barrington. "No one can say that any child should be left behind, educationally."

Obama said during the presidential campaign that while he supports the law's overall goal, he believes the program needs fixing.

Obama has called for an additional $18 billion to be invested in the nation's schools, in part to help school districts meet the law's expectations. He also called for new assessments that track students' progress over time, rather than relying on the results of a single standardized test.

"Don't come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind," Obama said in a speech to the National Education Association last year. "And don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test."

The nitty-gritty details of Obama's plans haven't been worked out yet, and local educators don't expect that to happen soon, with Obama focused on the economy and national security as he prepares to take over the presidency in January.

"A lot of this depends also on who he chooses to be the new education secretary," Karon said. "In any case, I don't think much will happen with NCLB in the coming year."

The No Child Left Behind law passed with broad bipartisan support six years ago, giving the federal government a much stronger hand in educational policy than it had before.

The program requires all schools and districts to meet yearly progress benchmarks in math and reading. The benchmarks get tougher over time, with the goal that by 2014, all students will be performing at grade level in those subjects.

Most education professionals still support the law's intentions, but they don't like how it has been executed. They particularly dislike its all-or-nothing approach to achievement; the law states that if any one "subgroup" of students doesn't meet that year's benchmarks - a "subgroup" is defined as 45 or more students who share certain learning, racial or economic characteristics - then the entire school is listed as failing for the year. Failing schools become subject to an array of penalties over time.

"It's a 'test, label, punish' approach," said Joel Packer, director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association. "We would like to see the program become less punitive, so that it provides support to struggling schools."

Jose Torres, superintendent of Elgin Area School District U-46, said it's problematic to label a school as "failing" just because one subgroup - special education students, for example - can't meet benchmarks that are often unrealistic, anyway.

"The challenges are different for different types of students," he said. "The program should recognize that. Instead of just looking at how one group performs on one test in one subject, it should look at increases in performance over time."

Torres stressed, though, that NCLB has done good things for education, such as putting a greater emphasis on improving the performance of minority students.

"Districts in the suburbs like U-46 had to focus on specific groups of students that, in many cases, hadn't been getting that kind of attention before." he said. "I think that kind of accountability is good."