Helping high schools?

January 13, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH went to a high school in northern Virginia yesterday to promote the next phase of his major education program, No Child Left Behind. The law, which purports to ensure a quality education for every child and hold states accountable, started with elementary and middle grades, and now Mr. Bush wants to extend those lofty goals to high schools. His chances for success, however, are uncertain. Many of the proposals are not new, and it's not clear where the money for the proposal's $1 billion-plus price tag will come from. Other reservations that have been raised about NCLB, particularly its emphasis on mandated tests, apply to high schools as much as they have to elementary and middle schools.

No Child Left Behind has an ambitious agenda: to have a high-quality teacher in every classroom by 2006, to have every child performing on grade level by 2014, and to eliminate achievement gaps among groups, mainly between whites and minorities. The main vehicle for getting there is the phasing in of a series of mandated tests in certain subject areas and at various grade levels. Educators have focused a lot on reading and math, since tests in those subjects from third to eighth grade are to be phased in by 2007.

The White House now wants states to concentrate on high schools - and it seems willing to push for more money to get the job done, even though NCLB's ambitious mandates have been persistently underfunded.

The president's plan calls for a $1.2 billion initiative to "help states hold high schools accountable for teaching all students" and to provide effective and timely intervention for students who are not learning at grade level. Reforming high schools is notoriously difficult, but the administration is basically promising that in exchange for improving academic achievement and graduation rates, states will have more flexibility to pick and choose programs that are most effective for their students. It's unclear, however, that more flexibility in exchange for higher test scores is the right trade-off, especially without a guarantee of adequate financial resources. The plan also offers $250 million to pay for "state assessments," or tests, at a time when states are still trying to implement additional assessments under NCLB for elementary and middle school students.

For high school students who are reading below grade level, the plan seeks $200 million to improve their skills. Mr. Bush sought $100 million for this Striving Readers initiative last year, and Congress gave only $25 million. As worthy as the program might be, there's little reason to think that it will receive significantly more money. Similarly, the administration is asking for $500 million to provide incentives for successful teachers to work in some of the most challenging schools. Again, a worthy goal, but the solutions are more complicated than Mr. Bush's plan envisions.

That's a main theme of the administration's No Child Left Behind efforts - ambitious and laudable in many respects, but often unrealistic and simplistic in execution.

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