Leave No Reform Behind
Ohanian Comment: Hold your noses: The Editorialists declare, "The philosophy of the law remain sound." Maybe the Editorialists should read the article by a Virginia teacher, published in their own magazine. See
THIS WEEK Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige announced an important set of changes to the No Child Left Behind Act. These changes will eliminate one of the absurdities of the law and prevent schools with large numbers of non-English-speaking children from being automatically labeled "failing." In December Mr. Paige also announced new rules for testing severely disabled students, whose failure to make the same progress as others will no longer count against schools either. The question now is why the administration waited so long to make these changes -- and whether they have come too late to halt the growing opposition to this law.
Opposition has been fierce locally. In Virginia, the House of Delegates is considering opting out of the program; some legislators have talked of renouncing the $323 million in federal funding that goes with it. Republican state legislators in Utah, along with Democrats in Vermont, are among others weighing the same choice. Many critics have attacked the illogical elements of the law -- the provisions requiring non-English speakers and the disabled to meet the same standards as others -- that Mr. Paige has belatedly begun to address. Others, Democratic presidential candidates among them, have complained that federal funding has been too skimpy.
It's true that schools that have become bogged down in the technicalities of testing various subgroups deserve sympathy, and it is indeed senseless when high percentages of schools are labeled "failures." Nevertheless, it is important to note that the law contains important measures of flexibility. The federal government has not mandated what it is that states are meant to test: That is left up to state legislators. Nor does the federal government tell states what or how to teach.
What the law does do -- and this, at bottom, explains why many dislike it -- is force states to look at all their students, not just statewide averages, and pay them equal attention. Virginia's state standards rules, for example, demand that 70 percent of students in a school reach proficiency for the school to be considered successful. In a few cases, however, "successful" schools may have 70 percent overall proficiency even though only a small percentage of low-income or minority students have achieved the same standards. The feds, rightly, say that's not acceptable. But raising standards for previously neglected groups won't be cheap or easy. No wonder the idea is unpopular in Virginia.
It is also true that some states may only now be reckoning with the fact that the schools they thought were good are not. According to some, more than half the nation's children are not reading at grade level, which should give many "successful" school districts pause.
The philosophy of the law remains sound -- which all the more suggests that the administration should make common-sense adjustments as needed. In fact, if this week's changes had been made faster, some of the opposition might have faded by now. But while promoting flexibility and making exceptions to the rules in the future, the federal government should be careful not to dilute the law's basic principle, which is that all children should have a chance to succeed in the U.S. educational system.
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