Fighting the feds

October 05, 2003|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE FEDERAL No Child Left Behind Act has created such an Isabel-like storm of controversy that education liberals and conservatives have declared a partial truce in their perpetual wars in order to oppose many of its basic features.

Enacted less than two years ago and touted as a historic bipartisan breakthrough in national school reform, the law's sweeping and laudable goal is to hold states and school systems accountable for improving student achievement. It requires states to set standards for what children should know, to test and publicly report student progress and to impose sanctions on failing schools.

But most educators think the NCLB has replaced what President Bush -- its leading proponent -- called the "bigotry of low expectations" with the chaos of too-high expectations. Its basic mandates, they say, are unrealistic: for example, that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in 12 years, that children with disabilities meet the same high standards as non-disabled students and that every teacher be "highly qualified" by 2006.

Moreover, the NCLB is viewed as a monstrous unfunded federal mandate, including the requirement that students in failing schools be offered expensive extra instruction. Democrats, in particular, point out that the president has fallen short on his commitment to additional federal aid at a time when state budget crises are causing school funding cuts.

But more than anything, critics left and right are united in waving the banner of local control and attacking federal authority. They cite the profusion of rules and snafus that have marked the law's implementation. For instance, one unintended consequence is that some states are dumbing down their academic standards so students will show more progress.

But does the might of the opposition of the education establishment make right? Yes and no.

The greatest problem with the NCLB is that its regulatory structure is neither federal fish nor local fowl. Political compromises made to secure bipartisan passage resulted in a bill of more than 1,000 pages and mixed messages. Some provisions wound up too rigid -- for example, that all students must meet the standards, and the arbitrary date when all teachers must be fully qualified. But the law allows each state to specify its own standards, tests and schedule of annual yearly progress. Federal officials trying to make it through this legislative minefield have been caught in the crossfire between those who think the regulatory process has been too strict and those who think it's been too lax.

In the process, the ability to compare states and local districts -- an important accountability tool -- has been lost. In the first results, the number of "failing" schools ranged from 8 percent in Minnesota to 87 percent in Florida. In Maryland, it's about 33 percent.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the NCLB is the nation's worst school reform scheme except for all the others that have been tried. And there have been many at federal, state and local levels. Yet the great majority of poor, disabled and immigrant children remain far behind.

What should be done to quiet the storm?

In the short run, the NCLB requires fine-tuning in many areas cited by critics, and it needs more federal money. At the same time, the education establishment must do more than complain. Educators must make a good-faith effort to comply while working on legislative and regulatory revisions. Many of the provisions of the law seek to fill vacuums left by state and local policy-makers.

For example, it is unrealistic to expect every child with a disability, such as those with mental retardation, to meet the same high standards as non-disabled students; yet, the overwhelming majority of special education students have the cognitive ability to learn much more than they currently do. Most states and local districts have done virtually nothing to address this and other accountability dilemmas.

In the longer run, there is a better and simpler way to reform the NCLB and achieve its purposes: through national standards and tests. Educators must confront the folly of 50 states (and about 15,000 local school districts) having their own baseline standards and tests. The basics of literacy, computation, history and science and higher-order thinking skills are the same in every part of the country. The United States stands almost alone among developed nations in failing to enact national standards, and we trail many of them in student proficiency.

Of course, as Albert Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers and a proponent of national standards, wrote years ago: "The biggest stumbling block to national standards is the fear that they will lead, somewhere down the road, to federal control."

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