Obama bends No Child Left Behind learning curve

The No Child Left Behind Act was fundamentally correct in demanding standards and testing of public schools. But the Obama plan would correct its flaws.

Although President Obama has yet to achieve much on jobs, healthcare, or energy, he is on track to transform America’s education.

He has pushed many states to reform education laws by dangling $4.35 billion in incentive grants. Now he wants to alter the No Child Left Behind law by rewarding schools that do well and revamping those schools that don’t.

Unlike in healthcare, Mr. Obama has been careful to take a bipartisan approach in reforming K-12 education. He consulted key Republicans before outlining his proposed changes to No Child last week. And while he has shown he is not beholden to unions – he would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores – he also wants to drop the law’s option of paying parents to send kids to private schools if a public school fails.

This middle way is necessary in a country that treats public schools as a largely local concern and that is wary of one-size-fits-all federal solutions. It helps, too, that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once ran Chicago’s schools and saw firsthand how No Child went too far – and not far enough.

The 2002 law went too far in expecting all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. As that unrealistic deadline nears, Congress must amend the law quickly before schools exist in a Wonderland of fantasy goals.

No Child also was too narrow in what it tested. While a high school diploma must mean a student has achieved a certain standard in math and reading, other topics are also essential, such as civics and science. Obama would allow standardized testing in such fields.

Another mistake was to use statewide testing mainly as a measure of a school’s performance. Obama would instead focus on each student, tracking individual academic growth over time – and then holding teachers accountable for a student’s failure to show progress. And schools, too, would be judged on a wider range of criteria, such as graduation rates, teacher turnover, and pupil attendance.

Obama would also shift toward using more carrots and fewer sticks. Federal money would largely go to schools that show progress in reducing education gaps between students, while schools that are failing could choose from four “turnaround models” – including sending students to another public school or having the state intervene. Gone would be the current law’s provision to allow a voucher system for private education if a school is deemed a failure.

In short, Obama would try to create models of excellence in the top 5 to 10 percent of schools while working harder to lift up the worst ones. The vast majority of schools in the middle may be largely left alone by the US Department of Education.

That’s a risk, but at the least, the president would keep standardized testing and data collection as the main method of keeping a spotlight on US education. And he would move the deadline for success – getting all students ready for college or a career – to the year 2020.

After eight years on a long learning curve, No Child needs a refresher course in order to right its wrongs and redefine the federal role in education.

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