By: Amy Klobuchar
Winona Daily News

Minnesotans place a high value on education, and so do I.

My 13-year-old daughter goes to public school, just as I did. My mom was a school teacher in Plymouth who taught second-graders until she was 70. I know how hard she worked and how much she cared about her students. Even today, I run into people who are proud to tell me they had Mrs. Klobuchar as their teacher.

Now, as a U.S. senator, I want to help children get the educational opportunities they need.

Congress has already taken steps to improve education. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed earlier this year, is making a historic investment in education. It allocates more than $100 billion to modernize schools, help shore up battered school budgets, prevent teacher layoffs and make college more affordable.

But much more needs to be done. One of the most important items on the agenda is fixing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress this year.

I believe that what happens in Washington should be informed by what people have to say at the local community level. That's why this spring, my staff and I held 27 public meetings in communities throughout the state to hear from Minnesotans about how federal policy can best support local schools in their mission to educate our children. We heard from teachers, parents, students, school board members and administrators.

Enacted in 2002, No Child Left Behind was intended to improve student performance and reduce achievement disparities by setting higher standards and stricter accountability for schools.

Instead, it has turned into an underfunded federal mandate that often seems designed to penalize schools and students, rather than to support them.

High expectations are good for our students, and strong accountability is good for our schools. But to get the job done, we need to make sure that No Child Left Behind is measuring the right things and providing the resources to do it. It must be reformed.

Minnesota was, and remains, in a different position than many other states. We already had strong academic standards, and a well-established assessment program, with testing in the fall to assess a student's instructional level and needs, followed by another round of testing in the spring to assess progress.

Federal policy should reinforce, rather than confuse or undermine, Minnesota's commitment to educational excellence. After hearing from Minnesotans, I have several clear priorities for fixing No Child Left Behind:

First, it must provide for more sensible accountability measures that track a student's individual progress over time. Currently, the law requires all public schools to implement a variety of broad, standards-based assessments in reading, math and science. We need to track individual student progress, not just the broad progress of schools based on standards assessments.

Second, the law must show a better understanding of the differences between rural and smaller school districts and their larger, urban counterparts. Federal education policy should not impose a rigid one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that stifles innovation and flexibility.

Third, the law must do a better job of accommodating children in special education and with limited English proficiency, who need appropriate standards and fair assessment tools.

Fourth, the law should contain

"carrots" instead of just "sticks." Repeatedly, Minnesotans told me the federal law was overly punitive and too quick to rate schools as "failures." A hand up is a lot better than a shove down.

Finally, we must take a more serious approach to truancy. Some states have exploited a loophole in the current law so their truancy and dropout rates appear much smaller than they really are.

As a prosecutor for eight years, I saw how skipping school was so often the first step leading to juvenile delinquency and adult crime. Early intervention is the best approach to keeping kids in the classroom, which is why I am introducing the "Student Attendance Success Act" to encourage schools to address, rather than evade, the reality of truancy.

High standards and strong accountability should continue to be at the heart of federal education policy. But even with these noble goals, if America's schools and teachers don't get the tools and resources they need, we will continue to see millions of children being left behind.