Seeking education success

January 22, 2007

It's one of the signature accomplishments of President Bush's administration, yet it has drawn widespread criticism as well as praise. The 5-year-old federal No Child Left Behind law is up for reauthorization this year, and Mr. Bush and Congress should not let it go forward without significant changes.

An ambitious effort to put more teeth into elementary and secondary school reform, NCLB has also put the federal government squarely in the middle of the traditionally local function of education. It has admirably focused on making school districts more accountable for student progress, with all 50 states and the District of Columbia now tracking whether schools are improving or not. NCLB also tries to close the achievement gap among students by requiring districts to look at how discrete groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, are performing as well as the student body as a whole.

The law calls for a highly qualified teacher in every classroom and testing of pupils in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in reading and math, with the aim of having students on grade level in those subjects by 2014. It also requires schools to show that they are making "adequate yearly progress" in improving performance. Persistent failure to improve can force schools to restructure or implement other changes.

These are certainly worthy goals, and many school districts report that student achievement is rising. But the bipartisan spirit in which the law was enacted has been undermined as states have justifiably complained about inadequate funds and an overreliance on tests.

President Bush and the Department of Education need to address some of these shortcomings more aggressively. The administration should work with Congress to make major changes in at least three areas:

Accountability. Instead of setting a benchmark to measure one year's class against the next year's class, more states should be allowed to track individual student progress. Improvement measures for students with disabilities and limited English should be further refined. And low-income districts should be given more help in getting qualified teachers.

Improvements. Schools also need more technical assistance and other resources to implement changes, from hiring new principals to restructuring grades and courses.

Resources. States and some advocates have rightly complained that the administration and Republican-led Congresses have shortchanged NCLB funding - more than $40 billion, by one estimate - setting up unfunded mandates.

Without meaningful action in at least these areas, the law's promise will never be fulfilled.

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