Two new national groups, the Task Force for A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and the Education Equality Project, have denounced the No Child Left Behind Law as a failure and called for a new course for education that will bring about equal opportunity and educational excellence for the neediest students.

A June ad in the New York Times and Washington Post submitted by the task force group calls on policy makers to replace the No Child Left Behind Law with a program that can really close the achievement gap. The 60 signers are prominent leaders in education, health, civil rights, religion, social policy and government and represent different political views.

Helen Ladd, professor of public policy studies at Duke University and Tom Payzant, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former Boston Schools superintendent and U.S. assistant secretary of education, are two of the group’s co-chairs. Others connected with the task force include Julian Bond, Janet Reno, Diane Ravitch, Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, Joycelyn Elders, Linda Darling-Hammond and Richard Rothstein – all well known public figures.

The task force states that five decades of research documents a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low achievement. Its position is that school improvement strategies by themselves, though absolutely necessary, cannot close the achievement gap between underachieving, disadvantaged students and those who succeed academically. Reducing social and economic disadvantages, the group says, can increase achievement.

Pedro Noguera, another task force co-chair and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Affairs and a New York University sociology professor said, “After six years, it is clear that No Child Left Behind has not succeeded in improving the quality of education available to America’s neediest children. This task force is united around the need for a more comprehensive approach to federal policy that specifically responds to the needs of children and schools in low income areas.”

“Schools can’t do it alone,” said Ladd, adding, “Accountability is a pillar of our education system, but schools need the support of the community both before children arrive at school and during their school years.”

“The task force is calling for a partnership and a sturdier bridge across schools, public health and social services,” said Payzant. “When we ensure our children’s most basic needs, then we can apply the highest of standards to all of our students.”

The group’s specific proposals include:

• Continued school improvement efforts by reducing class size, hiring high quality teachers in hard-to-staff schools, improving teacher and school leadership training and by providing college preparatory curriculum to all students with special attention to recent immigrants.

• Developmentally appropriate and high quality early childhood, pre-school and kindergarten care and education.

• Routine pediatric, dental, hearing and vision care for all infants, toddlers and school children and full service health clinics in schools.

• Improving the quality of students’ out-of-school time and increased investment in longer school days, after-school programs, summer programs and school-to-work programs with demonstrated track records of success.

“We urge policymakers to embrace this broader, bolder approach to education and enable all our children to pursue the American dream,” the ad reads.

The Education Equality Project recently held a press conference at which New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton joined prominent educators and lawmakers in strongly criticizing public schools in the United States for shortchanging poor Black and Latino students.

The group called the achievement gap between white students and Black and Latino students the nation’s most pressing civil rights issue. Unfortunately, the group cited teachers’ union contracts as one of the major contributors to the achievement gap.

Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee noted that in her city, children who attend schools in affluent neighborhoods get a “wildly different” education than students in the same school system who live in poorer neighborhoods but she too bought into the idea that teachers’ unions bear part of the blame.

Randy Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, actively supports the efforts of the task force group but has been critical of the anti-union approach taken by the Education Equality Project, which has criticized even the Obama campaign for not being strong enough on education. Obama has called for many of the things the task force says are important, but unlike the other group, he has also called for good pay and benefits for teachers who staff the public schools. Weingarten has said she welcomes Sharpton’s involvement in education struggles but has questioned why he would ally himself with the New York City schools chancellor against teachers, especially since the chancellor does not have a reputation as a fighter for public education.