Worth defending

April 10, 2005|By Andy Smarick

THOUGH A MAGNET for criticism throughout its three-year history, the No Child Left Behind law is under attack today as never before.

Connecticut just announced plans to file a federal lawsuit claiming NCLB is an unfunded mandate, and Utah may forgo millions in federal funds to avoid the law's accountability requirements. In response to these challenges and others, the U.S. Education Department is changing the way it administers fundamental provisions in the law, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged Thursday to be more flexible in enforcing the law.

This pattern is regrettable.

For decades, states were not held accountable for the billions in federal education dollars they received. So despite the doubling of education spending between 1970 and 2000, student achievement, however measured, remained flat and low.

In 2003, nearly 40 percent of our nation's fourth-graders were reading at the "below basic" level. Worse, the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers remained staggeringly large.

These problems persisted even though most states implemented significant education reforms throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

NCLB was the federal response, an effort to narrow the achievement gap, provide options to children in failing schools and ensure that future federal funds were well spent.

As a congressional aide during the deliberations of NCLB, I saw members of both parties struggle to find the delicate balance between using federal power to instigate needed change and respecting the states' historical authority over education.

But in a recently released report that drastically expands the war against NCLB, the National Conference of State Legislatures charges that NCLB unconstitutionally intrudes on K-12 policy and must cease immediately.

This report is politically significant because it represents the consensus of the legislatures of 50 states. It's also significant as a matter of policy because it ignores the states' previous inability to fix public education.

Maryland's education leadership deserves credit for not enlisting in this war against NCLB and instead dedicating its energy to improving student performance. From its slogan - "achievement matters most" - to its leadership on assessments, to its use of innovative strategies to improve some of Baltimore's worst schools, the state Department of Education has shown that its heart, mind and elbow grease are in the right place.

With that said, there is still enormous work to be done in Maryland. My concern is that the widening anti-NCLB fever could prove contagious and encourage some in our state to buck the spirit or letter of the law.

Indeed, the symptoms are already there. The president of the state legislative group and a member of its NCLB committee are both members of the Maryland House of Delegates.

So, to those Marylanders hostile or ambivalent to NCLB, please keep three things in mind:

Assessments identify problems. The point isn't testing for its own sake. Because of standardized tests, we know that less than half of Maryland's eighth-graders are proficient in math and that in Baltimore, two out of three black 10th-graders cannot read proficiently. Even in high-performing school districts such as Howard County, a low-income fifth-grader is four times more likely to read at the lowest level. NCLB's required student-level tests are a critical component of reform.

Though invaluable, assessments aren't enough. As the saying goes, "Weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter." Maryland has had nationally recognized assessments for 15 years that have shed light on the performance of our districts, schools and student groups. Yet that information hasn't translated into desired results.

Despite being one of the nation's wealthiest and most-educated states and spending above average on schools, Maryland's reading and math scores are not statistically different from the national average. Our racial achievement gap is the same as the national average, and our low-income students are among the lowest-performing in the nation. NCLB requires data to be used to continually improve all schools and mandates swift action to fix those that are failing.

Children in failing schools deserve other options. While several persistently failing Maryland schools have been reconstituted in recent years, countless others have simply languished, untouched by reform. NCLB gives their students the right to transfer to a higher-performing school or receive federally funded tutoring. This year, more than 60,000 Maryland children - 40,000 in Baltimore alone - are in failing schools. Take away NCLB and the alternatives for these kids are taken away.

To be fair, the report by the states' legislators is not all bad, and NCLB isn't perfect. But NCLB was a response to the states' inability to take the tough steps needed to improve public schooling. And the state legislatures' "leave us alone, we'll take care of it" posture represents a step backward.

Maryland should reject the contempt for NCLB, now so fashionable elsewhere, and continue to embrace the law's commitment to improved academic achievement for all our children.

Andy Smarick is director of the Charter School Leadership Council and a member of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education. The views expressed here are his own.

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