After a year of public hearings on the No Child Left Behind Act, many education advocates are disappointed because revisions proposed by the House Education and Labor Committee leave the basic complex structure of NCLB unchanged.

The House committee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), has issued a 435-page discussion draft for the reauthorization of the bill, first passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in January 2002.

A first proposal, released Aug. 28, was to reauthorize the core Title I programs covering schools in low-income communities. On Sept. 6, additional proposals addressed teacher quality and professional development, services for English language learners, the Reading First program and a long list of other NCLB programs.

Some proposals attempt to make the law more flexible and less punitive. But critics say the language in the draft is sometimes just as obscure as it was in the original NCLB Act. American Federation of Teachers President Edward J. McElroy said the draft provided more flexibility, but cautioned that it is “very complex and needs serious discussion on what its effect will be in the classroom.”

The 1.2-million-member AFT and the National Education Association with 3.2 million members both strongly object to the draft’s provisions for “pay-for-performance” bonuses tied to students’ standardized test scores.

NEA President Reg Weaver said, “The draft’s pay-for-performance plan (merit pay) undermines educators’ rights to bargain local contracts.” He noted that in some states local unions have negotiated experimental plans that compensate teachers partly based on test results, but these agreements were part of collective bargaining. Weaver also said the draft continues high-stakes standardized testing and fails to ensure tools and resources needed for great public schools for every child.

The NEA has been in the forefront of confronting the Department of Education on the NCLB’s unfunded mandates. From January 2002 when the law was signed until the present, nearly $40 billion promised by Congress has never been appropriated.

The new draft says “unfair funding must be corrected.” It also says that NCLB must ensure that Title I schools are not shortchanged in funding. But it does not spell out what measures will be taken to ensure that schools in poverty areas receive the funding they need. Both the NEA and AFT strongly support ending the achievement gaps that exist between wealthy and poor students, between Black and white students, between special education students and regular education students, between English language learners and those fluent in English, and between disabled students and those without disabilities. The testimonies of union members at their conventions, at NCLB hearings and on their blogs simply say they want fairness, flexibility and adequate funding to do their important jobs.

The draft gives a great deal of attention and dozens of pages to accountability and to closing loopholes in the formula for calculating whether or not a school or a district has made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Schools that don’t make AYP are put on a failing list and are subject to being closed, changed to a charter school or privatized. Teachers are pressured to drill students so that they pass or improve their test scores. Some positive changes are suggested in the draft, such as measuring individual student progress rather than groups of students, and using other measures in addition to reading and mathematics. It calls for coordinating state and local testing relating the tests to the actual curriculum used in the classroom. It incorporates into NCLB the TEACH Act, which will help school districts pay competitive salaries to teachers, recruit talented college students into teaching with tuition assistance, and provide bonuses for teachers who transfer to high poverty areas.

President Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, complained that the draft waters down penalties and gives parents fewer options for “choice” (transfers to charter schools and private schools along with private tutoring).

It will take weeks of discussion and analyzing before a true understanding of the draft is possible. Most involved agree that NCLB reauthorization won’t be an easy task.