School reform can't wait

Our view: An Obama administration plan to fix the No Child Left Behind law may benefit Baltimore City schools but not necessarily those in surrounding counties

February 02, 2010

President Barack Obama pledged early on to make improving America's schools a priority, and changes he is proposing this week signal a much-needed overhaul of the nearly decade-old No Child Left Behind Act. Rather than doling out federal education aid based on the poverty level in a school district, as has been the practice for years, the Obama administration intends to distribute aid based on school systems' willingness to reform.

In Baltimore City, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals because they come from low-income families, the loss of federal aid based on poverty levels might appear to threaten efforts to improve the system. But in fact, the new policy could prove particularly beneficial to the city's schools, which have shown significant progress in recent years and whose leaders have enthusiastically embraced change.

That's not necessarily the case for the surrounding counties, however, which haven't made anywhere near the same commitment to reform that Baltimore has, even though the suburbs, according to a recent report, are now home to a majority of the region's poor people. As that demographic trend becomes more pronounced, Baltimore County, for example, could find itself in an even worse budget crunch as federal education funding shifts from an income-based formula to one that ties aid to reforms that boost student achievement.

Mr. Obama wants to preserve the overall goals of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, especially the idea that all students, regardless of their race or background or where they go to school, should be expected to succeed. But he also recognizes that the way some elements of the law have been implemented - such as the requirement to make "adequate yearly progress" - has diverted education policy toward a numbers game that is overly reliant on test scores, which may or may not provide an accurate measure of how well students are learning.

Under the current system, bad schools can escape with few sanctions, while those that are forced to reconstitute themselves often get very little support to do so. And the lack of nuance in the testing system can make a chronically failing school appear nearly indistinguishable from a high-achieving school that simply is having a bad year.

Baltimore City's school reform effort is based on replacing failing schools with new transformation and charter schools that students want to attend, and on making sure every classroom has a good teacher. That strategy is tailor-made for the federal Race to the Top funds the Obama administration is giving to states that demonstrate a strong commitment to change. Additionally, Baltimore has been able to work constructively with the American Federation of Teachers, which generally has been supportive of city schools chief Andrés Alonso's ambitious reform agenda. That suggests the city probably will be OK under the new funding criteria.

But Maryland as a whole will be at a disadvantage because state leaders have not yet embraced the reforms necessary to compete, and county school systems have resisted innovations, such as charter schools or tying teacher evaluations and merit pay to student performance, that are fundamental to how federal funds will be distributed in the future. The changes the Obama administration is proposing will likely severely penalize these jurisdictions for their backward-looking attitude even as the city moves forward with reforms that produce measurable improvements in student achievement, which was what the original No Child Left Behind law was supposed to do in the first place. One way or another, the counties eventually will get the message, but we hope it turns out to be sooner rather than later.

Readers respond
President Obama needs to examine NCLB with attention to the law of unintended consequences. Ask a teacher and he will verify that all the focus on "teacher accountability" has created a student class that is generally disengaged and too narrowly focused on getting the right answer to pass the test. Do we want good thinkers or simply students who can pass tests? Right now in Maryland, passing the test is the priority.

Teachers take their responsibility seriously, yet we are left out of the conversations about school reform. Real school reform will start when the "experts" take a back seat to the true experts.


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