Fixing No Child Left Behind

The WSJ, published an editorial that both praises and is critical of the President’s Blueprint.  I thought it was worth a full read:

The Obama Administration wants to revise the No Child Left Behind education law, which is understandable because the law has flaws. But it’s too bad many of the proposed fixes would weaken the statute and undermine the Administration’s twin goal of raising state education standards.

Some of the White House proposals make sense, such as the push for more charter schools that can focus on the specific needs of their student populations by operating outside of collective bargaining agreements. We also like using student test scores to measure an instructor’s effectiveness and influence teacher pay. Both reforms are strongly opposed by the teachers unions, and Team Obama deserves credit for putting children ahead of the National Education Association.

Other parts of its proposal leave us scratching our heads. The Administration wants to junk NCLB’s requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and replace it with an equally unrealistic goal of making all kids “college ready” by 2020. By this thinking, it’s impossible to teach every kid to read at grade level within the next three years, but getting all of them ready for higher education six years later is doable.

The worst parts of the proposal diminish or eliminate NCLB’s accountability and choice provisions. Poor kids in persistently failing schools would lose their access to free private tutoring and the option to transfer to another school. It’s true these provisions were poorly enforced by the Bush Administration, but that’s an argument for better enforcement, not axing the only part of the law that allows a role for private competition.

We’re glad to see the Administration would maintain annual math and reading tests in grades 3 through 8, and that school districts would continue to disaggregate results by race and other factors to prevent schools from hiding achievement gaps. But the proposal would also allow for less rigorous and more subjective assessments—such as how “creative” a child is—to measure student progress, which could easily become an accountability loophole.

As worrisome is a call to drop the “adequate yearly progress” provision in NCLB that uses math and reading scores to determine whether districts are moving students toward proficiency. Currently, underperforming schools face federal penalties. But in the name of “flexibility,” President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want to return to a policy that lets states and school districts independently determine when and whether to provide remedies for most of their failing schools. Never mind that it was state neglect of such schools that led a bipartisan majority in Congress to pass No Child Left Behind Act in the first place.

If there’s a unifying theme here, we can’t detect it. It’s as if Team Obama agrees with much of the Bush-era reform but has to appear to oppose it because its core supporters hate anything that’s a Bush-era reform. The only good argument for federal intervention in local education is to challenge failure and promote higher standards, and if a revision of NCLB is going to water that down, then better to do nothing at all.

The Administration is also calling for common education standards in all 50 states. We’re not convinced that national standards are necessary to improve academic outcomes. But weakening NCLB’s accountability provisions could make it tougher for the Administration to pursue high-quality benchmarks. Without the threat of federal intervention, a state has that much less incentive to address the learning gap, hire more effective teachers or implement a more rigorous curriculum. Kids in failing schools deserve better.

The WSJ argues that the Blueprint is incoherent; I don’ think that’s true, it’s an improvement of the traditional role of the Department, but it does incorporate a big equity give-back–eliminating the good school promise of a common accountability framework.  I made similar arguments in the National Journal today.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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