No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has inspired reactions ranging from anger to love during the five years it has been on the books.
Now that Congress is preparing to reauthorize the 2002 federal law, groups representing a range of interests -- educators, employers, testing advocates, testing foes and politicians of every stripe, including the president -- want the rules rewritten to reflect each of their points of view.
Let me go on record to state that I have always thought NCLB is a positive law. It, in essence states that schools have a responsibility to meet the needs of all children, despite race, ethnicity, gender and/or disability. I feel that the regulations and the benchmarks that the law sets out is way too difficult to achieve. For instance, schools need to demonstrate improvements every year, but after a certain point, groups tend to stop showing significant change and improvement as a matter of statistics.
But as the congressional debate kicks off, this much appears certain: The law's basic premise requiring every student everywhere to score at grade level by 2014 will be kept intact, regardless of how improbable success may be.
And schools that persistently fail to meet annual benchmarks for improvements in test scores still will be subject to a range of penalties -- from having to help students find a new school to shutting down altogether. This is the part of the law that I disagree with - instead of punishing low performing schools, the law should prescribe some remedy(ies) to help these schools meet the needs of children.
What Congress may change are some day-to-day rules.
What's a highly qualified teacher? What makes a school successful? What's fair if you don't speak English or have a learning disability? Should testing focus exclusively on math and English? How much money should be spent, and how do we know if it's well spent?
Criticism about the highly prescriptive law has come mainly from educators -- traditional allies of the Democrats, who now control Congress. But Democrats such as East Bay Rep. George Miller and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy not only helped write the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law, they've been among its greatest champions.
Edward Kennedy has been quoted as saying: "This is a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty and the future of the United States in leading the free world...No piece of legislation will have a greater impact or influence on that."
But the California Teachers Association's parent organization, the National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million teachers, has declared No Child Left Behind fundamentally flawed. What the teachers dislike most is that the law essentially sends bad schools to the corner with a dunce cap.
These groups want Congress to expand the definition of successful schools to include those that improve somewhat -- not just those that raise test scores by the prescribed amount. There have been many who have been clamoring for this change for quite some time. I agree - these criteria are rather strict and unforgiving.
The way it is now, each public school must make adequate yearly progress. That means more students must score at grade level every year until everyone is proficient in 2014, though each state can set its own pace. Last year in California, the law required only one-fourth of students to score at grade level at each school. About 60 percent of schools met that goal.
Missing the state's goal two years in a row triggers consequences at schools that get federal funds for having a high proportion of low-income students -- as most California schools do.
Some consequences are welcome, such as new money for tutoring, more training for teachers and added technical assistance.
But some are not: Schools must tell students they can transfer to a higher-scoring school. If the low-achieving school continues to miss adequate yearly progress goals, more extreme measures can be imposed: Teachers can be ordered replaced or the school can be turned over to outside management or shut.
Many educators are asking Congress for a broader definition of success.
Business leaders -- the students' future employers -- are arguing just as fervently against making it easier to meet progress benchmarks.
"There is no more important or easy-to-understand measurement of student academic achievement than whether a child is reading and learning math at grade level," said Jim Lanich, president of the advocacy group California Business for Education Excellence. "By focusing on grade-level proficiency for every student, every year, in every subject, and by requiring reporting for each subgroup of students, it's easy to see which students are improving and which students are losing ground."
"Subgroup" is edu-speak for students sorted by ethnicity, poverty, language skills and special needs. No Child Left Behind also requires each subgroup in a school to make adequate yearly progress.
In coming months, advocates for students in these subgroups will appear before Congress to argue that fewer kids should have to be tested, that more English learners should be allowed to take a different test from children who are fluent and that students in different subgroups should be allowed to improve at differing rates.
Their key rationale is that the law unfairly paints many schools as failures, and that asking all students to reach the same benchmark ignores the fact that not all start from the same place.
"There is no 'standard' student, so why are we using standardized tests?" is how one 17-year-old student in San Francisco, Theresa Muehlbauer, once described the problem.
But one group representing low-achieving students will tell Congress just the opposite -- that the law has never been more necessary.
Russlynn Ali, executive director of Education Trust West, an advocacy group in Oakland, says bringing every child's skills up to grade level is the major civil rights battle of the 21st century -- and that broadening the definition of successful schools would weaken No Child Left Behind at its core.
"For the first time in our history, we have publicly committed to meeting the needs of all children who enter the schoolhouse door, regardless of the background or level of achievement they bring with them," Ali recently told the California Board of Education. She was urging the state to aggressively implement the federal law.
Miller, the Martinez Democrat who helped write the law and now chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, which is holding reauthorization hearings on it, said Congress is leaning toward the broader definition of success.
But he said another constituent's proposed change is already dead in the water -- the recommendation by President Bush that the government offer vouchers for private and religious school tuition.
That "didn't pass muster when Republicans controlled the Congress," he said, "and it certainly won't pass muster now that Democrats do."