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When Presidents Focus on Education, States Focus on Implementation

Now that President Obama has outlined his education policy, New Jersey and other states await the details.

The day after President Obama made education a central theme of his State of the Union address, lawmakers started talking the details of what federal rules will affect states like New Jersey in the coming years.

Topic A is the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that in the last decade virtually remade testing and accountability in schools nationwide.

And in an unusual press call, top federal officials and legislators from both parties yesterday made clear their focus was more on "fixing" the law rather than starting over.

The testing that was a hallmark of the federal law is not going away, for instance, but instead they said changes would be coming in how the required exams would be administered and utilized, and what accountability would follow.

One prominent point was rethinking the law to put more attention on how schools and even individual students progress over time, rather than through a single snapshot in a given year.

"There will be a focus on growth and gain" said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who convened the call with reporters. "It will be about how students are improving each year, how schools and states are improving each year."

Richard De Lisi, dean of Rutgers Graduate School of Education, said it was a welcome change of emphasis.

"That’s the thing that both Republicans and Democrats are recognizing needs to change," he said. "And honestly, everyone from practitioners to policy makers to politicians understand that’s a better way to go."

But some of that is in the federal law now, and the federal officials yesterday were scant on precisely what changes would look like and what they would mean for states and districts.

And De Lisi pointed out that New Jersey and many other states still lag of having a sophisticated data system in place to monitor progress by children and schools. ‘The system we have, New Jersey SMART, is frankly still quite primitive,” he said.

What will happen in the meantime is also unclear, as the clock on the existing law continues to tick. Under the law, all schools must to see 100 percent proficiency by 2014 -- three school years away -- and already in New Jersey nearly a third of schools are deemed as "in need of improvement."

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a leading voice among Senate Democrats, said he hoped to have a new bill voted upon by summer and to the President for his signature by fall.
Yet he was also the first to acknowledge the Republican-led House of Representatives was no sure thing, including its new leader, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner has been supportive of No Child Left Behind and pushed for its passage in 2001. But lately he has been better known in the education debates for pushing to revive and expand a federal school voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Within both parties, there have been factions over how to proceed, from those who see an expanded role for the federal government and even federal standards and testing to those who want to eliminate the entire federal education department.

"I’m not saying it will be a piece of cake or it will be easy,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee). “But we have a good start.”

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