WASHINGTON — Saying current education policies are failing kids, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of mostly Democratic senators plan to introduce a set of revisions that would move away from rigid testing and toward flexibility for local school districts.
Congress is four years overdue for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which offers a slate of regulations and funding for K-12 education.
Part of the push is to revamp No Child Left Behind, the landmark Bush-era legislation that focused on closing the achievement gap for minority children but that parents and educators have lambasted as too narrowly focused on testing.
"No Child Left Behind has created a system that punishes failure over rewarding success," said Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who, along with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., helped lead the months-long effort to develop the principles.
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"Rather than tightening our grip, we will set clear and ambitious goals and support local efforts to achieve them," Bennet said.
At a news conference Wednesday at a Washington public school, Duncan and a group of moderate senators slammed No Child Left Behind as a law that has frustrated parents, teachers and principals across the country.
Duncan, a former school superintendent in Chicago, said that under current law, states could lower their standards so that more students appeared to be succeeding. The law focuses too much on how students achieve grade-level goals and too little on the goals themselves, he said.
"We want to flip that," Duncan said. "High standards, but more flexibility. We can't begin to micromanage 95,000 schools from Washington. We don't want to."
Hagan said the group would introduce legislation "in the coming weeks" to overhaul No Child Left Behind, and Duncan said he wanted to see it pass by the August recess.
Hagan said new legislation must encourage all progress — recognizing, for example, when a teacher helps a fifth-grader move up from a third-grade reading level to a fourth-grade level.
Testing now focuses primarily on whether children are at or below grade level.
The group also wants to: increase accountability for funding going to the poorest schools, known as Title I recipients; hold teacher-training programs accountable for their graduates' performance; focus more federal money on so-called turnaround schools, with the highest needs; and encourage flexibility with more programs such as the federal Race to the Top competition.