Education politics

October 29, 2007

Among the many things on Congress' agenda is reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, which was passed with bipartisan support during President Bush's first year in office and went into effect in 2002. The law, which has come under increasing criticism, still represents some important policy choices that should be preserved - notably, improving academic performance, particularly among disadvantaged students, and eliminating achievement gaps among different racial groups.

But many of NCLB's practical applications need to be overhauled, which is why the reauthorization has become a drawn-out affair. Ideally, the differences can be smoothed out before 2008, when presidential politics will make consensus on improving the law more difficult, if not impossible.

As drafting progresses in the House and Senate, a few principles should guide the process:

Measured improvement. Instead of requiring students and schools to hit certain benchmarks as proof of adequate yearly progress, it would be better to measure whether student achievement has improved from one year to the next. Such a "growth model," which is now an exception, should become the rule. And for persistent underachievers, more comprehensive and timely help should be provided.

Expanded horizons. Because of NCLB's focus on reading and math proficiency by 2014, other important subjects, such as science, art and music, have been shortchanged. At the same time, the overemphasis on standardized tests and the proliferation of different state testing standards have watered down the idea of universal proficiency. Congress should keep pushing for high standards, but it should also allow some additional assessments as long as they can be rigorously evaluated.

Quality teaching. Too often, the most qualified teachers are not found in low-performing classes, where they could make a significant difference. There should be more incentives, including merit pay, to put experienced teachers in those classes.

The key principle for Mr. Bush is to put more money behind one of his signature domestic accomplishments, which has already fallen short of its projected budgets by about $50 billion. No reauthorization will be worth its weight without more realistic finances to back it up.

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