ST. PAUL, Minn.-- In a visit to the Twin Cities Tuesday U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on Congress to replace the No Child Left Behind law before the next school year.
Duncan headlined a panel discussion in St. Paul on fostering leadership skills in school principals. But most of the questions from educators and reporters alike concerned the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The bill, which will replace No Child Left Behind, is stalled in Washington due to differences between the goals and objectives of the Democrat controlled Senate and those of the Republican dominated House.
"I just want a sense of urgency," Duncan told reporters in St. Paul, "We've got children out here, we've got teachers out here. We've got parents and principals who need change now."
Minnesota Congressman John Kline, who heads the education committee in the U.S. House, said Tuesday it's more important to craft a good reform bill than to meet an artificial deadline of the 2011-2012 academic year.
Kline, who joined Duncan on a visit to a Lakeville school in January, was not with Duncan at Dayton's Bluff Elementary in Saint Paul Tuesday.
"I know how hard he's working on this. I know how desperately he wants to get it done," Duncan said of Kline, "He probably dislikes No Child Left Behind more than I do."
Duncan came to St. Paul at the invitation of Senator Al Franken, a Democrat who is leading the charge in the Senate for early childhood education funding. He plans on calling Minneapolis economist Art Rolnick to Washington to testify on the long-term returns from investing in pre-kindergarten programs.
"Secretary Duncan has been a champion of early childhood, and a champion of after school programs," Sen. Franken told reporters, "He knows as well as anybody how transformative those things are."
On the subject of the No Child Left Behind overhaul, Franken's remained relatively apolitical in his responses to the school administrators, teachers and state legislators in the audience.
"There are some major philosophical differences between the Senate and the House," Franken explained, "The House approach has not been very encouraging. They're looking at killing a bunch of programs."
Earlier Duncan joined Franken in a third grade classroom as the senator read a book about a family fishing outing. Franken interrupted himself several times to ask the children questions about the book, and how it related to their lives.
"Anyone here ever caught a walleye?" Franken asked the youngsters in Lori Goulet's classroom.
"Do you think they're exaggerating about the size of that fish?Do you exaggerate ever?"
Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary has the quintessential "turn around" story, with no exaggeration needed. The school went from a chronic underachiever on standardized tests to performing above average.
Andrew Collins, the former principal who guided that transformation, led Duncan on a tour of the school. He said the first key to success was to set higher expectations.
Duncan said that's the direction education policy is heading now in the United States, after years of slipping behind global competitors in academic performance and college graduation rates.
"We'll see for the first time 44 states raising standards across the country," Duncan said, "For the first time we're going to stop lying to children, stop lying to parents, telling them they're successful when in fact they're not."
Critics of No Child Left Behind say it has often punished promising schools while they're on the road to a revival by focusing too rigidly on standardized tests. Those tests don't generally track the growth of individual students, but tests different sets of students each year.
"As Arne Duncan said at one of our hearings," Franken recalled, "A 6th grade teacher who takes a kid from 3rd grade reading level to a 5th grade reading level is a hero. That teacher isn't a goat. That teacher's a hero."
Duncan has long promoted teaching reforms, such as alternative teacher licensing signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton during the 2011 session. He was less enthusiastic about an effort to base 50 percent of teachers' performance evaluations to their students' test scores.
"Anyone who thinks a test score should determine the evaluation of a teacher or school district, I think is crazy," Duncan told KARE.
"But anyone who thinks student growth and gain isn't important at all is also crazy. There's a middle ground. You have to look at multiple measures."
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)