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NCLB Outrages

Paige Claims Focus on Children
Ohanian Comment: Caution: Large gag content.

Education should be about children, not partisan politics. Yet, sadly, there has been a lot of political posturing on this issue lately. It may be inevitable during an election year.

I admit that this week I, too, ratcheted up the debate with a very poor word choice to describe the leadership of the nation's largest teachers union. I chose my words carelessly, and I am truly sorry for the hurt and confusion they caused.

I especially want to be clear on one point. As ill-considered as my words were, my disappointment was directed only -- and I mean only -- at the union heads in Washington who have been opposing any and all educational reforms, no matter what the consequences to our children. I have the utmost respect for our nation's teachers: They work hard and have dedicated their lives to children.

My comment was born out of frustration at the depth of the problem in our schools. Let's look at the facts: the Nation's Report Card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) shows that only one in six African Americans and one in five Hispanics are proficient in reading by the time they are high school seniors. NAEP math scores are even worse: Only 3 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Hispanics are testing at the "proficient" level. No wonder a recent study claimed a high school diploma has become nothing more than a "certificate of attendance."

Is our system as a whole preparing the next generation of workers for the global economy? As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan noted recently, "We need to be forward-looking in order to adapt our educational system to the evolving needs of the economy and the realities of our changing society . . . It is an effort that should not be postponed." That's why I am so passionate about making these historic reforms and drawing attention to the issue.

The old system -- the status quo -- is one that we must fight to change. President Bush and both parties in Congress understood the urgency of the situation and set in motion a process to fix the problem: the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires schools to give all students a quality education, provides accountability and choice for parents, and insists that teachers be highly qualified to teach -- in other words, that they be knowledgeable in the subjects they are teaching -- which is just plain common sense.

Why the focus on teaching? Because research tells us that teachers are the single most important factor in student achievement.

Some have claimed that No Child Left Behind is intrusive and a violation of states' rights. Of course elementary and secondary education is the traditional province of state and local governments. The specific standards, tests and most of the other major tenets of the law are designed and implemented by the states.

But there is a compelling national interest in education, which is why the federal government is involved and has been for some time. The federal government has stepped in to correct overt unfairness or inequality, starting with measures to enforce civil rights and dismantle segregation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision a half-century ago.

The federal government's first major legislative involvement in education dates to 1965 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which marked the first federal aid given to school districts with large percentages of children living in poverty. The law has been renewed many times since, with the last incarnation before the No Child Left Behind Act coming in 1994. It was called the Improving America's Schools Act. Like No Child Left Behind, it required standards, assessment and the identifying of schools for improvement.

There are two main differences between that 1994 legislation and No Child Left Behind. First, the 1994 act was a tepid attempt at accountability, whereas the more recent legislation builds on that first step and sets concrete expectations. Second, this administration is serious about enforcing the law. When President Bush took office, only 11 states were in compliance with the 1994 law. Three-quarters of the states were ignoring the law and simply taking the federal largess.

The days of free money are over. The No Child Left Behind Act says that if you take federal education dollars, we will ask you to be accountable in terms of raising student achievement -- for all students, not just some.

But this law is not a one-size-fits-all federal approach. The administration has worked hard to create a climate of cooperation and trust with states, and we have listened. New flexibility is being provided. For example, the progress of special education students and English-language learners can now be measured more accurately.

We also provide the money to implement the law. In the president's proposed 2005 budget, federal funding for education would be $57.3 billion, up 36 percent since 2001 and the largest federal education budget in history. We pay for testing, to provide more money to each state, and to target special efforts such as reading, rural education, special needs and language acquisition. Several studies have concluded we have provided enough funding to implement these reforms.

The principal critics of this law -- aside from those with issues concerning federalism -- fall into three camps: protectors of the education establishment, such as national union lobbyists; some state legislators who have become victims of an organized misinformation campaign; and, perhaps most sadly, some members of Congress who voted for the law and support its ideals but now see opposition as being to their political advantage. These forces have nothing to offer in place of the No Child Left Behind Act but demands for more money to pay for the same programs that haven't worked in the past. They seem to have forgotten what is really at stake here: the best interests of the children. Do they want to condemn a child to a poor education? Are they going to decide whose children will be left behind?

It's time to make the law successful. We need to create an American public educational system that matches the vision of this law, where we strive for excellence without exclusion, where our children achieve greatness rather than greatly underachieving, and where 10 or 20 years from now a new generation of adults realizes that we gave them a better life because we had courage and conviction.

The writer is secretary of education.

— Rod Paige
Focus on Children
Washington Post


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