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Arne Duncan tells Education Writers Association: NCLB has to go (the name, not the law)

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the annual convention of the Education Writers Association in Washington, DC Thursday night, and he said that the name "No Child Left Behind" has to go.

"The name 'No Child Left Behind' is toxic," he said.

Duncan doesn't want to scrap NCLB by a long shot, but he wants to see some changes, especially in how schools are evaluated. He called himself a big fan of value-added methods of judging school progress -- in other words, looking at growth in test scores -- rather than relying on a basic proficiency rate.

On testing, Duncan said he realizes the limits of standardized tests, but doesn't want to get rid of them. "Test scores don't tell us everything, but they tell us some things. We must use what we have until we come up with something better."

One other indicator he wants to add to NCLB -- or whatever it will be called -- is a measure for high schools of how well they keep ninth graders on track.

Duncan said that he wants all states to have data systems that can tie student progress to individual teachers.

He gave a strong endorsement to alternative pathways back to high school, saying that "the hardest work in the country" is getting 15- to 17-year-olds who have "lost their way" back in school, or back on track in school.

As for the stimulus money, which he said represents an "opportunity that won't come again," he said that to get a share of the funding set aside for the "Race to the Top," states and districts will have to show that they have used their other money creatively. "The first question on the application will be, 'how did you use your stimulus money,'" he said. Request-for-proposals for that $5 billion pot of money will go out within a few months to states, which will get the bulk of the money, and later to districts and nonprofits, which will compete for $650 million of the total. 

Duncan made a strong plea for schools and school districts to be as open as possible. EWA's public editor, Linda Perlstein, said that many education writers are "up against a pervasive culture of fear in the education world and the world of schools. Teachers and principals are afraid to be honest with us." Often, that tone is set from the top leadership of a district.

"We're trying to do everything we can to create unparalleled transparency," Duncan said. "We must dismantle the barriers to straightforward discussion. The lack of willingness to open up actually impedes progress."

OK, teachers and principals and other district administrators, what do you think about that? Do you feel that you are encouraged to speak freely to the press and public in Philadelphia? We would love your reaction.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.