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Originally published Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 4:14 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

'No Child Left Behind': gearing up for a sequel

Critics of No Child Left Behind will be happy to hear the federal education law is in its final months. But they should save the Champagne. The Obama administration's new education blueprint will retain much of the law's demand that all children achieve.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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PHILADELPHIA — The Obama administration is accomplishing in education something it failed to do in other contentious policy debates, including the debt-ceiling fracas: anticipate a key political roadblock and smoothly remove it before it creates a stalemate.

The much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act will soon fade into history. No hint on the name of the federal law's successor, but when Congress finally gets moving on overdue reauthorization of federal education law, it will use a new name.

It is a come-to-Jesus moment worth noting. An administration singed and slowed by fiery debates about numerous policy efforts simply cannot afford another conflagration.

A few days ago in the city of Brotherly Love, I caught up with Russlyn Ali, assistant education secretary for civil rights, to find out what comes next.

First, the name change isn't a retreat. Historic levels of federal funding and growing public awareness of education's challenges fuel momentum for an administration looking to move faster on reforms. Jettisoning a name wielded as a punch line is political expediency wrapped in common sense.

Ali and her boss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have spent too much time debunking myths around the law. Repeat after me: it wasn't the sole progeny of President George W. Bush. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller of California also shaped the law's sharp focus on low-income and minority students and viewed strict accountability as a way to rouse complacent districts.

The educational disparities in our schools are recited these days as though we've been trying to erase them since Brown v. Board of Education, but the reality is states didn't deign to collect data on how poor schools fared against their wealthier counterparts until forced by federal law.

Ali doesn't want this point to get lost in the legacy of No Child Left Behind.

"Unequal educational opportunities became a civil-rights issue because of (the federal law)."

Listening to Ali, I'm confident the administration will continue that focus but reframe it around less-rigid expectations.

The work is already under way. Waivers announced this week by the administration will provide states with leeway in meeting achievement benchmarks — an important concession. When No Child Left Behind was approved in 2001, every student was required to be proficient in math and English by 2014. States responded like a homeowner with a balloon mortgage, setting themselves low, easily attainable goals with the plan to ramp up efforts later. No surprise that in recent years, as states raised achievement goals, more schools began to fail federal requirements for yearly progress.

Waivers work for now. But the best thing a new education law can do is eliminate the need for them by moving away from static goals toward steady progress. Students enter school at different levels and leave the same way. Growth is what we aspire for each of them.

Testing remains key under the new Obama education blueprint. Until we have class sizes of a dozen or less, standardized tests are the only way to broadly measure student progress. But current tests aren't good enough yet. They're still too imprecise and mechanistic. The administration's planned $300 million investment in new assessments starts the shift beyond bubble tests.

Key in all of this is an appropriate balance of power. Requirements seen as too strict will be construed as federal overreach and the backlash from the teachers unions, not to mention local districts caught in the middle, will make current ed-reform debates appear mild in comparison. Conversely, a weak federal hand would be an abdication of the federal influence needed to ensure equal access to educational opportunities, including good teachers and well-resourced schools.

Got a name for the next federal law? I'll start. The No School is a Good School Unless it is Good for all Kids Act of 2011.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email lvarner@seattletimes.com; follow her on Twitter @lkvarner.




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