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NCLB Outrages

Fixing 'No Child Left Behind'

Ohanian comment: The Standardisto editorialist likes the paper promises of NCLB, refusing to acknowledge that the corporate-politico effort to "remake the country's public schools" is taking away the childhood of our youth, pushing out teenagers, and squashing teacher professionalilsm.

The United States has historically viewed public education as a local issue, so the federal government has looked the other way when the states have damaged the national interest by failing to educate large swaths of the population. That approach has left us with one of the weakest educational systems in the developed world.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law three years ago, marked a recognition by Congress that things had to change. The key provisions of the law are aimed at the current system's weakest points: it requires the states to improve teachers' training and to erase the achievement gap between white and minority students in exchange for federal dollars. But the reform effort will collapse if the Bush administration gives in to the state governments that are invoking the principle of states' rights and embracing the bad old status quo.

Local school systems have plenty of good reasons for impatience with No Child Left Behind - particularly on the critical issue of money. The government's failure to fully finance the law has made it harder for cash-strapped states to comply, and provided a ready excuse for critics who don't believe in the principle of equal education in the first place. In addition, districts that were already trying hard to provide excellent education to every student are understandably dismayed at having to navigate confusing federal laws that need to be made clearer. And slipshod administration from Washington during the inept administration of Rod Paige when he was the education secretary added another layer of bad feeling.

It was inevitable that a law this ambitious, dealing with an issue as close to home as public schools, would have a rough start. When it comes up for reauthorization, there will undoubtedly be refinements in the formula that determines whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress" - particularly when it comes to special education students and children who are learning English as a second language. Advocates must mobilize all their resources to fight for better financing. And the Education Department, under its new secretary, Margaret Spellings, has to listen closely to the needs of well-intentioned communities that support the goals of the law but are finding it difficult to penetrate the bureaucracy that has grown up around it.

But the core part of the law, which requires the states to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, must remain sacrosanct, and the Bush administration must stand firm against the districts that simply don't want to make the effort.

That is the kind of challenge looming from the State of Utah, which is leading a rebellion against the basic principles of No Child Left Behind. Utah wants to dump the law's accountability system in favor of the state's own system, which is one of the weakest in the country. The Utah system as a whole does not collect student data based on race and ethnicity, something that is required by federal law and is crucial for determining whether state schools are closing the achievement gap. This is especially troubling because Utah's Hispanic fourth graders rank near the bottom among such students nationwide. The white-Hispanic gap in Utah is among the widest in the nation - a grim disparity, given that the state's white fourth graders also lag behind the national average in reading. If any state needs federal prodding to achieve better results, Utah does.

Americans who have watched underachieving school systems struggle with failure are familiar with the depressing pattern of educational reform: a dramatic new plan to set benchmarks and hold everyone accountable is announced with great fanfare, then quietly dropped a few years later when achievement turns out to be harder than anticipated. With No Child Left Behind, the federal government has set exactly the right goals. It cannot backtrack because the early progress has been rocky. If Washington wavers and begins to cut deals with recalcitrant states like Utah, the effort to remake the country's public schools will fail.

— Editorial
New York Times
2005-04-05
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/05/opinion/05tue3.html?th&emc=th


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