MARSHALL - Calling No Child Left Behind's test-driven standards unrealistic, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Friday said he was glad to see Minnesota was chosen as one of 10 states to receive a waiver from the nearly decade-old program and that he hopes legislation introduced in the Senate will improve the quality of education in Minnesota even more in the future.
In an interview with the Independent on Friday, Franken, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said whatever direction these states decide to go with working with their schools to address the achievement gap and student growth will be an improvement from NCLB.
"From what I've heard it will be much better than had we just stayed with No Child Left Behind," he said. "In a way, this is by virtue of our not having a bill from Congress to revamp NCLB and get rid of it. I think that is really the fault of Congress for not being able to get something done."
Members of Franken's staff will be in Marshall at 4 p.m. Monday at the Marshall Middle School to hear from local education officials and teachers about NCLB reform.
Franken said schools will now be under less pressure to fulfill what many have deemed unfair goals and that they won't have to worry about losing resources because they're considered failures.
"There was a punitive part of NCLB that we saw just didn't work," Franken said. "I think schools will feel a little bit of relief because they won't be considered failing. The goal here is a good goal, which is to reduce disparities and improve growth of the kids. Those are goals we had in our reauthorization bill."
That reauthorization bill, which passed with bipartisan support in October 2011, included amendments authored by Franken which would give schools more flexibility in testing, improve schools through strengthening principal leadership, create a stable education environment for foster care kids, and clarify that teachers don't need to be forcibly transferred from their schools to meet equal funding requirements. The amendments were incorporated in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act - formerly known as No Child Left Behind - and was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, of which Franken is a member.
Franken's amendments do the following:
Allow states to use CATs that include questions above and below grade level and that give teachers the ability to better pinpoint exactly a student's achievement level. CATs immediate results also allow teachers to better tailor classroom lesson plans and develop individualized plans for students based on the test results.
Address the shortage of skilled principals in high-need and rural schools by investing in proven strategies for recruiting and preparing effective principals through competitive grants; a focus on instructional leadership and data usage; a year-long residency and two years of follow-up support; and a school turnaround leadership academy.
Allow foster youth to stay in their school of origin when it is in their best interest by providing arrangements and funding for transportation, as well as assigning liaisons to make sure educational choices are made in the child's best interests.
Clarify that school districts don't have to force teachers to transfer between schools to equalize funding between higher and lower income schools in order to meet comparability requirements.
There is also a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) piece in the legislation which would provide grants to states to offer students opportunities in tech-related areas like robotics.
"So many of the jobs available now are in industries that require STEM skills," Franken said. "Even though we have some of the worst long-term unemployment since the Depression, we have jobs going unfilled in the manufacturing sector because people don't have the skills to fill them. We're also working with two-year technical schools on this."
Franken was unsure about the future of the Senate's provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He said there was a 90 percent agreement among Senate members that NCLB needed a massive overhaul and 75 percent agreement on how exactly to address it.
"(What happens) depends to some extent whether we get something from the House that is somewhere in the ballpark as ours," he said. "So far what we're getting out of the House is kind of piecemeal and different than what we're doing in the Senate. I'm not quite sure if this gets done now. The administration may be happy with the waiver policy and might wait until this year's over. I wish it would pass this year because I like what we did in the Senate."