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NCLB Outrages

A Law Best Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: The writer is wrong that NEA opposed NCLB from day one. Dating back to their enthusiasm for "A Nation at Risk" because, as Edward Fiske reported in The New York Times, "the panel's recommendations would require 'additional billions of dollars - and a big boost from the Federal Government - to achieve their sweeping objectives,'" the NEA has liked sitting at the table with corporate politicos. They operate on the principle that money pouring into schools is a good thing, regardless of the real cost to students and teachers.

Reference: Edward Fiske, "COMMISSION ON EDUCATION WARNS 'TIDE OF MEDIOCRITY' IMPERILS U.S.," New York Times, April 27, 1983.

So the Wall Street Journal wants to dump NCLB because it isn't tough enough. Do we cheer or cry?

By Jason L. Riley

With its focus on testing, achievement, accountability and transparency, the No Child Left Behind Act has undoubtedly altered the terms of the education debate in the U.S. But the law, which is set to expire this year, remains seriously flawed, and the Bush administration's weak enforcement of its best provisions argues against renewal.

George Miller, the 17-term liberal Democrat from California who chairs the House Education Committee, has issued a reauthorization draft proposal, and his provisions aren't entirely without merit -- he wants performance pay for teachers -- but almost. On balance, his proposals do nothing to close accountability loopholes in NCLB and in most cases would expand them.

Mr. Miller's "multiple measures" provision is a good example. NCLB uses math and reading test scores to determine whether students in a school are making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward proficiency. Mr. Miller's changes would allow schools to use less rigorous measures -- like social-studies test results, good attendance and dropout rates -- to grade AYP. We've gotten to the point where some consider merely showing up for school to be the equivalent of learning.

The soft bigotry of low expectations is also apparent in Mr. Miller's plan to allow "local assessment" of educational progress. Right now, each state is charged with implementing its own academic norms and applying them uniformly in all school districts. Everyone in Illinois takes the same exam to measure AYP. Under the proposed changes, school districts would be allowed to walk away from state standards and create their own tests. The ability to compare districts would vanish, along with another way for parents to hold schools accountable.

NCLB already allows each state to define proficiency as it sees fit, which has resulted in a "race to the bottom" as states dumb down standards to make children appear smarter than they are. Mississippi claims that 89% of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading. Allowing local assessment would only accelerate this troubling trend.

The Bush administration wants NCLB renewed largely intact and is understandably denouncing proposals that would weaken the law's effectiveness. But the Education Department, and Secretary Margaret Spellings in particular, have been poor stewards of the law and thus have little credibility with Republicans in Congress, many of whom were already wary of federal intervention in what has traditionally been a state responsibility.

In a letter to Mr. Miller earlier this month, Ms. Spellings said she was "deeply troubled that the draft would decrease information and options for students and parents -- a key bright line principle of NCLB." The Democrats want to ease the requirement that students in failing schools receive tutoring services and the option to transfer someplace else. "I am extremely concerned that the draft bill would significantly restrict the opportunities for children in schools that fail to make AYP," wrote the secretary. In reality, however, the only thing weaker than the school-choice provisions in NCLB is Ms. Spellings's attempt to enforce them.

NCLB stipulates that school districts set aside funds for private tutoring and transfers, but if that money goes unused it is rolled back into their general budget. Obviously, this is a huge incentive for school administrators to do as little as possible to avail parents of these options. And Ms. Spellings has done next to nothing to stop districts from all but ignoring the law, either by granting exemptions or looking the other way. Around 2% of children eligible to transfer out of failing schools have exercised the option. Fewer than one in six students who qualify for tutoring are getting it. The one part of NCLB that allows a role for the private sector has gone unenforced. Against this poor track record, the secretary's complaints ring hollow.

The Education Department's oversight has been derelict on the teacher-quality front as well. NCLB ostensibly guards against minority and low-income students getting stuck disproportionately with instructors who are inexperienced or teaching out of their field. Yet that's exactly what has happened while federal officials stood by, issuing an occasional stern warning to districts when the mood hit them.

NCLB is designed to help close racial and ethnic leaning gaps. But schools have even been allowed to monkey around with disaggregating their AYP data by race and ethnicity. States have allowed schools to omit significant numbers of low-performing students by setting large minimum sizes -- known as N-sizes -- for calculating a subgroup's test scores. If a state has an N-size of 30, for example, it means that a school has to have 30 black kids taking the third-grade math test in order for their disaggregated scores to count toward AYP. The games being played here are outrageous. Ohio set an N-size of 45 for kids with disabilities. California's N-size is 100. These are telling shenanigans for a law meant to Leave No Child Behind, and the Bush education department has abided them.

To be fair to Ms. Spellings, her actions (or inactions) don't exist in a vacuum. The teachers unions, led by the National Education Association, have opposed NCLB from day one. The powerful lobby has used its heft to thwart testing and accountability at the local, state and national level with equal vigor. But Ms. Spellings and other Bush administration officials have a bully pulpit that's seldom been used in the service of enforcing their own law. And since the administration has clearly shown more interest in appeasing naysayers than challenging them, it needs to do a better job of explaining why Mr. Miller shouldn't get his way.

Mr. Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board.

— Jason L. Riley
Wall Street Journal


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