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updated 3/9/2011 7:35:40 PM ET 2011-03-10T00:35:40

The number of schools labeled as "failing" under the nation's No Child Left Behind Act could skyrocket dramatically this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

The Department of Education estimates the percentage of schools not meeting yearly targets for their students' proficiency in in math and reading could jump from 37 to 82 percent as states raise standards in attempts to satisfy the law's mandates.

The 2002 law requires states to set targets aimed at having all students proficient in math and reading by 2014, a standard now viewed as wildly unrealistic.

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"No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now," Duncan said in a statement. "This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed."

Duncan presented the figures at a House education and work force committee hearing, in urging lawmakers to rewrite the Bush-era act. Both Republicans and Democrats agree the law needs to be reformed, though they disagree on issues revolving around the federal role of education and how to turn around failing schools.

A surge in schools not meeting annual growth targets could have various implications. The most severe consequences — interventions that could include closure or replacing staff — would be reserved for those schools where students have been failing to improve for several consecutive years.

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Duncan said the law has done well in shining a light on achievement gaps among minority and low-income students, as well as those who are still learning English or have disabilities. But he said the law is loose on goals and narrow on how schools achieve them.

"We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk," Duncan said.

Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, said some states and districts have dug themselves into a hole by expected greater gains in the final years.

"The reality is coming home that you can't essentially demonstrate very little progress for ten years and then expect all of your progress to occur in the last two or three years," Whitehurst said.

He said some states believed improvement would accelerate as students advanced, creating a "snowball effect," while others put off the heavy lifting to avoid the consequences.

Daria Hall, Education Trust's K-12 policy director, said it was also important to distinguish between schools that don't meet the annual growth benchmark for one year, versus those who have failed to do so for two consecutive years and are labeled as being "in need of improvement."

Read more school coverage on NBC's Education Nation

Both distinctions could mean vastly different outcomes in terms of how many schools are subject to which interventions. The Department of Education was not able to provide data breaking down how many of the 82 percent would be failing to meet yearly goals for one year, versus consecutive years.

Hall said there are many ways states can meet their annual achievement benchmarks, and questioned whether the 82 percent figure took them all into consideration. Amy Wilkins, Education Trust's vice president for government affairs and communications, also noted that schools which are struggling are given various options — contesting Duncan's assessment that the law is tight on means and loose on goals.

"There is an objective finish line with annual finish line targets for everybody," Wilkins said.

Paul Manna, a professor focusing on education policy at the College of William & Mary, noted that while there are specified goals, what is considered "proficient" in math and reading varies by state.

He said the rising number of schools not meeting the benchmarks could become unmanageable.

"There's no way given the resources, the personnel available, to do what would be required, that they'd be able to do it," Manna said.

___

Associated Press writer Dorie Turner contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Geoffrey Canada discusses education reform

  1. Closed captioning of: Geoffrey Canada discusses education reform

    >>> 28 years ago, native new yorker and harvard educated teacher, jeffrey canada , saw a need to educate new york city school kids and he launched a huge effort to fill that need. it is called the harlem children's zone. it encompasses 97 city blocks. they have educated upwards of 10,000 kids from inside and outside the neighborhood. he has risen since to national prominence. he's featured in the documentary "waiting for superman" and at least one american express commercial that we can think of. but he has vowed to stay in harlem , stay in the fight, and the need is about to get more dire. so as part of our education nation coverage, tonight we welcome back to our studios, jeffrey canada . welcome.

    >> thank you. thank you. thrilled to be here.

    >> i wanted to talk to you again because last time we spoke, you spoke with passion and urgency. in your words, the poor are about to get hammered and inner city students are about to get hammered. how badly and why?

    >> well, you know, this is to me a real national disaster that i don't think anybody is paying attention to. you know, when a bunch of us saw katrina heading towards new orleans, we wondered how come those people aren't reacting. i see the same thing happening in poor communities. we're raising the standards. we're making it clear that if you don't have a great education, you will not get a job in the future. and we're cutting education budgets and all the supports for poor people all at the same time. and so when you ask people, okay, how does this work that kids that are already struggling and failing, we're cutting supports, and now we expect them to do better. no one has an answer. people just say, well, what else can we do. and i think that's a recipe for disaster. this country needs to recognize this is a crisis, and we need to take immediate and urgent action or we're going to lose a whole generation of americans.

    >> do you worry about the current union conversation, this big fight, this big debate that's going on in terms of attracting high-quality teachers?

    >> well, i think that what people are wondering is do we value teachers in america. and i think the answer to that is absolutely yes. and what we have to say to, i think, people who are wondering about coming into this field, we value teachers. we want the best teacher possible in front of these children, because we know the teacher is the number one ingredient in driving performance in schools. but we've got some rules right now that will not keep the best teachers in front of students. as we have to make tough choices in america, things like the last in, the first out, we have to get rid of these kinds of issues. get rid of teachers based on seniority and not based on teacher effectiveness. we simply don't have enough money to keep ineffective teaches in classrooms.

    >> in the moments we have left, final question. why do you think it is after money gets tight after all this hubbub and building up spirit about education, education is often the first thing to get cut.

    >> i am stunned. be they republicans or be they democrats, they will not talk about really the major parts of the budget when you begin to look at issues of social security , everybody says it has to be reformed node is touching it. when you talk about major pension reform , no one is doing anything about that. they simply look at the issues of education, programs like promise neighborhoods and they say all of that stuff has to go. i think that they are simply picking on the weakest parts of our society. this should be shared suffering. this suffering should be shared by the old and by the young. we are just targeting our young people in this country, and that's a disgrace.

    >> jeffrey canada , it's always a pleasure. thank you, sir, for coming by again. jeffrey canada , harlem children's zone. we're back

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