Leaving no child behind

Our view: President Obama's education reform plans retain the focus on accountability championed by his predecessor but provide schools more flexibility

March 16, 2010

President Barack Obama has made education reform a signature issue of his administration, and the sweeping changes in how school systems are evaluated by the federal government announced over the weekend appear to go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Mr. Obama wants to revise the criteria for judging student achievement away from a strict reliance on standardized testing and toward a system that measures not only how much progress students make during the school year but also how well prepared they are for college and the workplace when they graduate from high school.

The changes would also eliminate what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called "perverse incentives" that penalize troubled schools that are making good progress while rewarding schools as long as they meet minimum standards of proficiency - even if they fail to challenge students to achieve their full potential.

For all the criticism it has faced, former President George W. Bush's landmark education law, No Child Left Behind, did force the nation to come to grips with the idea that schools should be held accountable for success and failure, that bad schools should not be allowed to continue operating as if nothing were wrong, that achievement gaps between racial or socioeconomic groups are unacceptable and that quality teachers are crucial to academic success.

But the law also had several unintended consequences that worked against troubled school systems that were trying to improve. States were allowed to set standards for what students should know at each grade level, but in the effort to maximize the number of students passing state exams, the standards were lowered in comparison to those of other industrialized nations, leaving American students at a competitive disadvantage in a global marketplace. States were able to demonstrate ever-rising test scores on their own assessments while students' scores remained flat or worse on tests benchmarked to international standards.

"Teaching to the test" forced educators to concentrate on a handful of rote-learned topics in reading and math at the expense of other subjects that develop students' mastery of critical-thinking skills essential to overall academic success.

President Obama's approach to fixing No Child Left Behind rightly focuses on retaining the goals of NCLB but refining the methods.

Under the president's plan, which has been developed in months of bipartisan discussions, a small fraction of schools at the top would get rewards and incentives. A small percentage of schools at the bottom would get intense federal intervention, such as a requirement that they close, replace most of their staffs, reconstitute themselves under independent management or replace the principal. But the vast majority of reasonably well-functioning schools in the middle would see greater flexibility for figuring out how to make progress.

The concept of measuring whether students are performing at grade level would be replaced with a measure of how much progress individual students are making. Under that system, a school system that takes disadvantaged, poorly performing students and brings their achievement up significantly would qualify for more federal help than one that simply takes great students and treads water with them.

Teachers' effectiveness would be judged not by their qualifications in terms of certification requirements but on the progress their students actually make in the classroom. Standardized tests would still be important, but schools would be encouraged to add more subjects besides math and reading to the mix.

And in what may be the biggest change, the billions in federal Title I grants that now go automatically to schools with large populations of poor students would instead by apportioned based on schools' willingness to adopt reforms.

The effort ties in with a movement by 48 states, of which Maryland is a leader, to develop a common set of curriculum standards. The idea flies in the face of the long tradition of local control of education but recognizes the increasingly interconnected world in which we live and the difficulty of competing in a global economy.

Teachers unions are already blasting the idea, but their focus remains primarily on protecting the adults in the school system, not ensuring the best outcomes for the children. And Republicans in Congress have criticized the proposal for retaining too heavy a federal hand in education.

But here in Baltimore, we have seen the progress that can be made by demanding accountability, embracing reform and providing flexibility in how to achieve our educational goals. The same has been true in New Orleans, where the school system was rebuilt from scratch after Hurricane Katrina. It is only by encouraging these kinds of efforts that we can assure that no child will be left behind.

Readers respond
I believe that a federal curriculum is long overdue regarding main subjects such as reading, math, history and social studies. Other subjects could be tailored by geographic location, such as agricultural classes in rural counties or technical trades in localities that support them.

Tying test scores to teachers' effectiveness remains a reliable indicator of progress or failure, in my opinion.


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