Education reform: Can Obama’s budget rescue No Child Left Behind?

His emphasis on incentives may win over critics. But that effort won’t be worth it if he also waters down standards with new ‘college and career readiness’ benchmarks. 

The controversial No Child Left Behind law is stuck in detention. States and teachers unions shake their fingers at it, complaining of impossible-to-meet standards, overreliance on student testing, and lack of funding. Eight years into the law, Congress has yet to reauthorize it.

President Obama hopes to change that. His education budget calls for Congress to renew NCLB this year, and if it does, he will then propose $1 billion in added education spending for the states. It’s indicative of his overall approach to education reform – dangling carrots to encourage frozen bunnies to hop. To push lawmakers along, he’s also suggesting significant alterations to the law that the administration hopes will satisfy critics without sacrificing accountability for learning students.

But is Mr. Obama trying to square a circle – an impossible task in Euclidean geometry? Can the critics be mollified and standards upheld?

In the president’s favor, education reform is one area where Democrats and Republicans have drawn closer together. The NCLB Act, passed in 2001, was the result of a major bipartisan effort between President Bush and the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. The goal was to move all public school students to math and reading proficiency by 2014. The leverage of school choice and withheld federal funding was supposed to push failing schools into compliance.

But states bristled at federal intervention in an area that’s largely their domain. They complained of another “unfunded federal mandate.” Obama’s proposed budget tries to meet this criticism with a spending increase of just over 6 percent. It’s one of the few areas of the federal budget (besides national security) where the administration is not cutting or freezing spending.

However, even record federal spending on education won’t rescue the states. The US government provides only 7 cents for every dollar spent on education. NCLB has to be seen as a national goal, not a means. It is still up to states and school districts to do their job of educating America’s students. Maybe Obama’s 6 percent increase will quiet those complaints, but more likely not.

The Obama administration is also trying to address state and teacher union criticisms about simplistic standards. Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposes replacing the annual yearly progress benchmarks – based on math and reading student testing – with something called “college and career readiness.” It is a more nuanced approach, the administration says.

But details are yet to come, and they will make all the difference. Supposedly, the administration’s new standards will be guided by a yet-to-be-finished project undertaken by the nation’s governors. The governors have been working on common K-12 standards that prepare a student either for college or for a career after high school.

Potentially, the governors’ standards could raise the achievement bar. Under NCLB, which leaves it to states to measure their own achievement, some states selected tests that actually lowered their standards of proficiency. Politically, the governors’ standards could work because they come from the grass roots, as opposed to being seen as a Bolshevik imposition from the White House

There’s something basic and solid, though, about reading and math standards. The temptation for the governors is to go fuzzy on their benchmarks, so states – and students – don’t have to work so hard. If Obama follows fuzzy standards, he does the nation a disservice and is better off just limping along with the current, unimproved NCLB law.

The most promising part of the president’s approach to a revamped NCLB is his emphasis on competition and incentives for federal funds. Instead of dispensing federal education dollars by a set formula, he wants some of the money to go only to states that are reforming – and performing.

His “Race to the Top” program, passed as part of the 2009 Recovery Act, proves this can work. That program set $4 billion aside for states that reform – that allow the growth of charter schools, improve collection of performance data, and link teacher evaluation to student performance. Forty states are competing for this money, and many of them have changed their laws in order to qualify.

Critics have a point that NCLB is nowhere near its 2014 goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading. The latest “nation’s report card” on math, for instance, shows only 39 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders at or above proficiency. 

But the principles behind the law – standards and accountability – are beyond question, and students have progressed under this law. Perhaps the president’s emphasis on incentives will change the minds of the law’s critics, and those of reluctant lawmakers. But that effort won’t be worth it if “college and career readiness” turns out to be just a sophisticated way of saying “lower standards.”   

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