ST. PAUL, Minn. - U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on Congress to move faster on an overhaul to the No Child Left Behind elementary education law during a visit Tuesday to high-achieving school in a low-income St. Paul neighborhood.
"We desperately want to see this done before schools go back in the fall," Duncan said during a discussion with local educators. "This can't be done on Washington time. It needs to happen on real people's time."
The nine-year-old No Child Left Behind law has been widely criticized for branding schools as failures even as they make progress, for discouraging high academic standards and for encouraging educators to teach to the test.
Duncan called the law an "impediment" to academic success even as U.S. students fall further behind their peers in other counties.
The Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School, which Duncan toured, has hit all its testing targets under No Child Left Behind, despite the fact that 90 percent of its students qualified for subsidized lunches. Duncan and others credited school leaders with high expectations for the students.
Duncan was in St. Paul at the invitation of Sen. Al Franken, who sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Franken was extremely critical of how the law tests students. Because the results aren't available until after the school year, teachers can't use the data to tailor their lessons. He noted that some educators call them "autopsies."
Franken said he expected Democrats on the Senate education committee to develop their version of a replacement for No Child Left Behind before the Senate's July recess.
However, Franken was critical of the first bill to come out of the House education committee, which is chaired by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
"What we saw come out of the House was very disappointing," Franken said. "It was basically, kill a bunch of things."
The House committee plans to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind with a series of bills, which started with a proposal to eliminate 43 federal K-12 education programs that was passed by the committee on May 25.
Kline said his committee plans to go bill-by-bill through this fall, missing Duncan's deadline. On Tuesday, he released a statement saying he had no plans to speed up.
"Our education system is in critical need of improvement, but we have all seen what can result when Congress hastily crafts sweeping legislation to meet an arbitrary deadline," he said. "The future success of America's students is far too important to risk on a flawed process."
NCLB sets a goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014, but each state set its own definition of proficient and how much its schools must improve each year. Many left the biggest increases for the final years, anticipating the law would be changed before now.
But those changes didn't happen, so the number of schools not meeting annual growth benchmarks is likely to increase. Duncan has said he expects 82 percent of schools could be labeled as failures next year, but other education experts have questioned whether it would be that high.
Repeatedly failing to meet the targets leads to federal interventions that can result in replacing staff and restructuring a school.