Embarking on a "listening tour," Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked teachers, parents and students Tuesday how they would improve No Child Left Behind, the controversial education law championed by former President George W. Bush.
Duncan visited West Virginia, the first stop on a 15-state tour as the Obama administration prepares to try to overhaul the program.
"What do we need to do to get better?" Duncan asked about a dozen teachers and parents at Bunker Hill Elementary, a high-achieving school in West Virginia's eastern panhandle.
Time to 'scrap' it?
President Barack Obama has pledged to rewrite the law, but he has been vague about how far he would go, or whether he would scrap it altogether.
"I don't know if 'scrap' is the word," Duncan told reporters last week. "Where things make sense, we're going to keep them. Where things didn't make sense, we're going to change them."
Traveling through the rural terrain was a new experience for Duncan, a former big-city school superintendent in Chicago, where he was born and raised. In addition to holding forums where teachers, parents and administrators could vent, he visited a first-grade class to read the book, "Doggie Dreams" at Bunker Hill and ate lunch with fourth graders at Eagle Intermediate School in Martinsburg.
"Who's the president now?" Duncan asked the first graders, one of whom correctly identified Obama. "Barack Obama, that's important," he said.
Duncan said little about the law Tuesday, preferring to listen to the concerns of teachers.
Special education teacher Lynn Reichard told him she works all year long to boost the self-esteem of mentally impaired students at Bunker Hill, only to see them fall apart over standardized tests.
"They feel so good about themselves, and then they look at a two-paragraph reading passage, and they know six words," Reichard said. "I have one child here that's a non-reader, and she's going to have to take the test, and she's going to cry.
"There's just got to be another answer for that," Reichard said.
The law does make allowances for different tests for severely impaired kids, but many don't fall into that category.
Whatever the administration decides to do, it needs the approval of Congress, which passed the law with broad bipartisan support in 2001 but deadlocked over a rewrite in 2007.
Duncan gives the law credit for shining a spotlight on kids who need the most help. No Child Left Behind pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students, a group that typically includes minority kids, English-language learners and kids with disabilities.
"Forevermore in our country, we can't sweep those huge disparities with outcomes between white children and Latino children and African-American children, we can't sweep those under the rug ever again," Duncan said last week.
Yet Duncan has many criticisms of No Child Left Behind, and he has plenty of company. Opponents insist the law's annual reading and math tests have squeezed subjects like music and art out of the classroom and that schools were promised billions of dollars they never received.
Critics also say the law is too punitive: More than a third of schools failed to meet yearly progress goals last year, according to the Education Week newspaper.
That means millions of children are a long way from reaching the law's ambitious goals. The law pushes schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.
"What No Child Left Behind did is, they were absolutely loose on the goals," Duncan told the Education Writers Association meeting in Washington. "But they were very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there.
"I think that was fundamentally backwards," he said.
Tighter goals, rigorous standards
Duncan said the federal government should be "tight" on the goals, insisting on more rigorous academic standards that are uniform across the states. And he said it should be "much looser" in terms of how states meet the goals.
The education community is watching closely to see just what Duncan means by "tight" and "loose." So far, the administration has offered few clues.
Since the law's passage, students have made modest gains, at least in elementary and middle school, the grades that are the focus of No Child Left Behind. The biggest gains have come among lower-achieving students, the kids who now are getting unprecedented attention.
The story is different in high school, where progress seems stalled and where the dropout rate, a dismal one in four children, has not budged.