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NCLB Outrages

Students left behind

Editorialists insist: Miller has not lost his passion for the vision of a national commitment to identify weaknesses in the educational system, to rectify them - and to hold schools accountable for student outcomes. In reality, Miller can't admit he made a mistake. In reality, Miller is beholden to corporate interests with a huge stake in NCLB.

99.9 percent good intentions, indeed. This was a corporate-politico plan from the getgo.


No Child Left Behind. It had a noble ring to it. So did President Bush's pledge to take on the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

Five years later, the White House is prepared to declare victory in what began as an effort to infuse both resources and accountability into the nation's schools. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings once called NCLB "99.9 percent pure or something ... there 's not much needed in the way of change." Just last week, Bush, in his sometimes awkward way, suggested his program had produced results.

"Childrens do learn," the president said in New York.

They do, of course. But the question of whether they are learning as a result of No Child Left Behind - or in spite of it - has become the subject of a furious argument as the program approaches reauthorization.

Educators could argue all day over whether the federal law has produced gains in reading and math scores. There are studies to support all points of view. At one extreme is the Bush administration, which regards almost any attempt to rewrite NCLB as a "watering down" of the law. At the other extreme is the legion of NCLB critics - including teachers' unions and bureaucrats that loathe accountability - who regard the law as the "drill-and-kill" ruination of the educational system.

At the center of this debate, in more ways than one, is Rep. George Miller, a Martinez Democrat who worked with Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to help craft the law. "I'm very proud of No Child Left Behind," Miller said during a recent meeting with our editorial board. "It's hard to say publicly."

Miller has not lost his passion for the vision of a national commitment to identify weaknesses in the educational system, to rectify them - and to hold schools accountable for student outcomes. The House Education and Labor Committee chairman is determined to mend, not end, No Child Left Behind.

In Miller's view, which is widely shared by educators, one of the main shortcomings of NCLB is that it was not accompanied with the promised surge of funding. President Bush shortchanged the program by more than $56 billion since signing it into law in 2002.

Here are some of the areas where Miller would alter the law:

-- Improve test quality. There are two major flaws in the current regimen. One is that the standardized math and reading tests are too narrow, both in subject matter and in approach. More sophisticated tests could provide a better portrait of what students have learned. The other is that the tests are not providing an accurate reflection of students in special education and those still learning English.

-- Sharpen the law's definition of "adequate yearly progress." A comparison of one year's third graders with another's is no way to measure a school's progress.

-- Upgrade the professional environment for teachers. An effective federal program should be providing teachers and principals with mentoring, career salaries, higher salaries - and, yes, performance pay. Miller merits extra credit for taking on the teachers' unions on the latter point.

-- Focus on the dropout crisis. A student who drops out is, by definition, being "left behind." The federal law needs to keep a more accurate track of dropout rates - and to provide more aggressive intervention programs to reduce them.

Miller is persuasive in insisting that none of the aforementioned reforms is a "weakening" of the law. It's about moving beyond the 21st-century model of evaluating the educational system with bubbles filled in with No. 2 pencils. "Our education system is analog and our kids are digital," said Miller, whose committee is expected to act on the reauthorization in the next few weeks.

No Child Left Behind may be 99.9 percent good intentions, but its results are far less definitive. Children do learn. The question is, are politicians willing to learn and to change.

— Editorial
San Francisco Chronicle


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