"Few laws have generated more debate. Few subjects divide educators so intensely," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today. "Many teachers complain bitterly about NCLB's emphasis on testing. Principals hate being labeled as failures. Superintendents say it wasn't adequately funded. And many parents just view it as a toxic brand that isn't helping children learn."
The administration is planning to develop its proposal for reauthorizing the legislation in the coming months, after receiving recommendations and input from various stakeholders.
Duncan's comments today were made at the first of six "stakeholder forums" to be held on the topic with representatives from more than 160 groups, including the National Education Association, the National Governors' Association and the Business Roundtable.
In addition, Duncan has been travelling the country this summer on a "Listening and Learning" tour to gather information about education reform and how NCLB can be improved.
The current law -- approved by Congress with overwhelming support in 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 -- requires students to be measured through standardized tests. Currently, states set their own standards for academic success and may risk federal funding if they fail to show adequate yearly progress in achieving their goals.
Critics claim the current system encouraged states to lower standards so that they could report significant progress.
Duncan agreed that the legislation fails to raise the bar for academic achievement.
"It unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they were making progress," he said. "It places too much emphasis on raw test scores rather than student growth. And it is overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.
"But the biggest problem with NCLB," he added, "is that it doesn't encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not."
However, while the secretary made clear that standardized testing is not ideal, for now, it is the best thing available.
"Until states develop better assessments -- which we will support and fund through 'Race to the Top' -- we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress," he said. "But this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have."
Duncan was adamant that reform cannot wait and cited Martin Luther King, Jr., in noting that education is the "civil rights issue of our generation."
"In this new century and in this global economy, it is not only unacceptable to delay and defer needed reforms -- it's self-destructive," he said. "We can't allow so much as one more day to go by without advancing our education agenda."
Despite the urgent calls for reform, many are concerned the administration has failed to offer specifics.
"The immediate take away was where's the detail," said Andrew Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "[Duncan's] been on his 'Listening and Learning' tour since the beginning of this administration … yet we didn't get any very clear details about what he wants the reauthorization to look like."
"In effect, [Duncan] was saying we need to act immediately, but then let's do more listening and waiting," Smarick said.
Furthermore in this tough political climate, passing a reform bill may be easier said than done.
"The biggest challenge in getting this reauthorized is the politics of it -- what type of legislative plan could get support in both the House and Senate," Smarick said. "The amazing thing is that people have been making predictions since 2006 that NCLB reauthorization was going to happen, so you have to be skeptical of anyone who says that reauthorization is going to happen soon."
Overall, the secretary agreed that new standards must be clearly outlined, but that states should continue to play a large role.
"We should be tight on the goals -- with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers -- but we should be loose on the means for meeting those goals," he said.
Earlier this year, 48 states and the District of Columbia agreed to adopt uniform standards in math and language arts.
Several stakeholders raised concerns about accountability going forward.
"It's always very important to embrace higher standards, but let's not be too loose on the accountability side," said Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We need to have real compliance."
Others are concerned that NCLB testing has narrowed the focus of academic success, something they feel must be reversed.
"The assessment system … we must think about sciences, the arts, creativity," said Santa Clara County, Calif., Superintendent Charles Weiss. "What gets assessed is what gets taught."
Smarick, however, noted that broadening the range of what gets taught and evaluated "means that you need to create even more tests, and a lot of people would be opposed to that. Most educators want fewer tests -- not more."