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MURPHY: Education sea change on the way?

During the recent National School Boards Association conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed what could be a possible sea change in education reform resulting from revision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Such reforms could change the school accountability measure known as Adequate Yearly Progress. Under No Child Left Behind, individual school progress is determined by student achievement on reading and math tests. These tests are different in each state, based on state standards and linked to statewide curriculum.

The Obama administration is asking Congress for reauthorization, not of the No Child Left Behind Act, but of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This change signals movement away from AYP's school accountability system to growth models that are yet to be worked out.

"We want accountability reforms that factor in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates," Duncan said. "If we can be smarter about accountability, more fair to students and teachers, and more effective in the classroom, we need to look at all of these factors."

Education laws passed by Congress define the role of federal funding in state and local education. In 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson led passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provided federal funds for poor schools and low ability students, including Head Start and Title I programs.

In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Act provided funds for students with disabilities, including special education programs, while in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, AYP became a school rating tool.

Under President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 exposed achievement gaps among racial groups, required annual testing of all students to show proficiency in reading and math by 2014, and labeled schools that failed to meet the standards as "needs improvement." Such schools face sanctions, closing, and possible state takeover.

No Child Left Behind reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in distinct ways, including accountability, local control of schools and parental involvement. The NCLB Act expired at the end of 2007-08, and Congress extended it using the appropriations process.

What is next for the 111th Congress to address reauthorization of the laws that govern public school reform? Can changes be completed before the 2010 midterm elections? Will Congress approve legislation and funds to overhaul the proposed reforms?

As a first step, 48 states, including Georgia, are working to develop common standards for career and college ready students. Also, the National Governors Association has agreed to a common definition of "graduation rate."

If states agree to common standards, the Obama administration has budgeted millions to develop a new generation of tests to determine student growth. Also, funds will be available for robust data systems to track student growth. Emphasis appears to be on helping students make gains, not on reaching proficiency.

Duncan noted that at a time when most government spending is frozen, the president proposes a $4 billion increase in K-12 education, including $1.35 billion to make Race to the Top a permanent program.

"The FY 2011 budget will set the stage for ESEA reauthorization," Duncan said. "Major components include funds for standards and assessments, robust data systems, teacher and principal effectiveness, and charter schools. Our goal is to develop an accountability system built on greater transparency, incentives and rewards, and a focus on turning around persistently underperforming schools."

Mary Kay Murphy represents District 3 in the Gwinnett Board of Education.