A stronger education law
Read this at your own peril.
The results of the No Child Left Behind Act should impress even the most dour skeptics. NCLB has brought a critical spotlight to struggling schools. It has put pressure on all schools to raise the performance of all kids, no matter their race, ethnicity or social class. It has set clear standards for student improvement. It has exposed the failure of even some elite, suburban schools to improve the performance of their poor and minority students.
Thanks to NCLB, many parents are better consumers of education. Nearly half a million parents now shop among private tutoring firms to choose the best extra help for their child.
The 5-year-old education reform law expires this year. How Congress handles its renewal will determine whether the federal government keeps pressure on local schools to meet the ultimate goal: get all students at all schools proficient in core subjects by 2014.
No one argues that NCLB can't be improved, but there's likely to be a heck of a debate about how to do it. U.S. House and Senate committees are expected to begin discussing that later this summer. Congress has to resist the efforts by some education groups that want to water down the demands and expectations of NCLB.
A better idea -- strengthen the law in critical areas so it has every chance to succeed.
We offer four keys to a better education law:
Enforce it. States have found 101 ways to evade challenging parts of the law, and the feds have allowed that to happen. For example, the law states that every teacher must be highly qualified -- a recognition that student improvement depends on top-notch teachers. But states and schools across the nation ignored that provision because the feds, until recently, looked the other way. Many states, including Illinois, adopted broad definitions of "highly qualified" that rendered the term meaningless. The feds should tighten that.
One way to enforce the law is to provide more alternative choices for students. The Bush administration wants to fund scholarships that students in failing schools could use at any other public or private school.
Stop moving the finish line. As pressure mounts on schools to get more students to pass state tests, many states have responded by lowering standards or dumbing down their exams. Mississippi reported that 89 percent of its 4th-graders passed the state test in 2005. Fantastic, right? But only 18 percent of those 4th-graders passed the tougher National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation's report card. All the evidence says Mississippi made its own test so easy that everybody could get a passing grade.
Comedian Steven Colbert zeroed in on the absurdity of this. "Instead of passing the test, have kids pass a test," Colbert said. "Have them walk into a room that's empty except for a chair and a test on a shelf. If they can figure out how to step on the chair to get the test, they pass. If that doesn't work, help them out by putting a piece of pizza up there."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings asserts that requiring states to publish both national and state test scores should be sufficient remedy. But unless states face stricter consequences for lowering standards -- or financial incentives for raising them -- then the federal law will slide into a meaningless expenditure of money and resources.
Measure progress, not status. Schools don't get credit for students who, say, move up two grade levels in a school year but still fail a proficiency test. Under a "growth model" for measuring student gains, a state evaluates how far each child progresses each year. If schools post sufficient student gains, they can meet the NCLB requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress. Seven states have received federal approval to use growth models to measure student progress.
Improve tutoring. The Department of Education says that more than 2.4 million students qualify for free tutoring under No Child Left Behind, but only about 450,000 students receive it. Tutoring could be one of the law's best options for boosting student achievement, but no one knows how effective current programs are because they haven't received much scrutiny. Many tutors provide little beyond after-school baby-sitting. There have been reports around the country of tutoring firms that have bribed parents or students to use their services.
States need clear, high standards for the companies that provide tutors. Those that fail to help kids improve should be shut down.
NCLB has shown the nation how far it has to go to educate every child. A stronger law from Congress and a better commitment from the states and local schools can help to get there.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES