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NCLB Outrages

Finishing Education Reform

Ohanian Comment: This is from Progressive Policy Institute, part of the Third Way and the Democratic Leadership Council. It illustrates why educators will have to hold their noses while voting in November.

President Bush acts as though the job of education reform was finished the day he signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act -- the most ambitious federal education law in a generation. Actually, the hard work of implementing the law and ensuring its success only began the day it was signed. Sen. John Kerry, who voted for NCLB, understands this and is putting forward a series of ideas about how to make the law work better while resisting the irresponsible calls to repeal or undermine it.

Kerry has so far focused on two primary issues: raising the high school graduation rate and improving teacher quality. The graduation rate for poor and minority students is a national scandal. The Urban Institute and Harvard Civil Rights Project recently estimated that only about one-half of black and Hispanic students graduate from high school, though inconsistent reporting of graduation rates makes it difficult to understand the full scope of the problem. NCLB included provisions to ensure more accurate reporting, but the Bush administration has not enforced them. Kerry's solution would ensure accurate and transparent reporting, while also encouraging such improvements as smaller schools that help engage students and discourage dropouts.

More fundamentally, Kerry has proposed a "new bargain" for America's teachers: "I will offer teachers more, and I will ask more in return," he says. NCLB requires states to ensure that, by 2006, all teachers are certified and have expertise in the subjects they teach. Yet, high-poverty schools have great difficulty attracting and retaining highly qualified and veteran teachers. Kerry would use funding increases to encourage states to offer bonuses and salary differentials to teachers who teach in high-need districts and subjects, and to experiment with tying results to teacher pay. His plan would also support mentoring for new teachers -- a key retention strategy. Kerry has also called for measures to increase accountability in teacher preparation programs and raise standards for new teachers, two important steps toward improving teacher quality. Collectively, these initiatives would put more tools in the hands of state and local policymakers to help them meet NCLB's ambitious goals while addressing some current shortcomings in the law.

At the college level, Kerry is focusing on affordability and proposing a new compact with students that would link college aid to national service. The Bush administration has presided over the fastest increase in college tuition on record. For students who work two years in various national service activities, the Kerry proposal would guarantee the equivalent of four years of college tuition. In exchange for this opportunity to graduate debt-free from college, Kerry told college students in April, "I'm going to ask you to serve your country. This compact will bring the greatest expansion of national service in history and we're going to ask you to step up to the plate to do what's right for America -- to go out into your communities and teach children, be mentors, build homes, and protect America."

Expanding educational opportunities for all is the key to a stronger American economy and society. Unlike the current administration, a Kerry administration will finish the job of education reform and make the great American dream of college available to everyone.

Andrew J. Rotherham is director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

— Andrew J. Rotherham
Blueprint Magazine


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