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Determining the Fate of No Child Left Behind

Last month in this space I wrote about the importance of political action. This month I want to focus on exactly what will be at stake on November 4 when our nation chooses a new President and Congress.

The United States is at a critical point in history, facing many challenges—wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new economy that has Americans feeling uncertain, the need for new sources of energy, and a failing health care system. As educators, we know that improving our nation's schools is just as important as any of these other issues.

The first order of business on the education agenda will be to reauthorize the so-called "No Child Left Behind" law (NCLB). Congress began work on this reauthorization in 2007, but it quickly became apparent that nothing would happen until after the 2008 elections.

Obviously, the outcome of the presidential race will have a tremendous impact on the future of NCLB. The President will have a bully pulpit to make a case for the kind of bill he wants. Barack Obama believes the law needs to be dramatically overhauled, while John McCain has indicated he would prefer to extend it more or less in its present form.

Congressional races are even more important in shaping what NCLB will look like a year or two from now. A President can only sign (or veto) whatever bill Congress passes. So if educators want to see major changes to No Child Left Behind, we must pay close attention to congressional races.

The most controversial aspect of NCLB has been its emphasis on high-stakes testing. NEA understands that the world today is complex, our schools are diverse, and a student is so much more than a single, high-stakes, standardized test score.

NCLB's emphasis on these tests has been unfair to students and teachers. It has painted an incomplete picture of student achievement and encouraged school districts to neglect important subjects such as history, science, and the arts. Some members of Congress share our concern about high-stakes testing, and they want to incorporate other measures of success, including growth models that track the progress of individual students.

However, there are others in Congress who would put even more emphasis on high-stakes tests by linking teacher compensation to student test scores. We need to support candidates who will resist such proposals.

Another problem with NCLB is the enormous gap between programs that the bill promised and what has actually been delivered. As of today, there has been a shortfall of more than $70 billion between promises and appropriations.

It's time for Congress to put its money where its mouth is. In this election, NEA supports candidates who are committed to full funding of Title I and IDEA (special education) programs, and I would hope that every one of our 3.2 million members will keep this issue in mind when they vote. If we ever want to see more programs like early childhood education, we must elect members of Congress who share that commitment.

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002, NEA members have consistently pointed out how the law is harming students and suggested ways to improve it. On November 4, we'll have a chance to put our ideas into action. This election will be our opportunity to ensure that Congress makes the changes that are needed, so every child can have a real opportunity to learn and succeed.

— NEA president Dennis Van Roekel

Photo: Matt Herrebout/NEA

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