There’s a gaping hole in the U.S. Senate’s “fix” of No Child Left Behind.
Congress is attempting to revise the reviled 2002 law that required regular testing of students, forced school districts to report the results and mandated penalties for schools that weren’t showing progress.
The law’s wildly utopian goal was to help all American students achieve academic success by the middle of 2014 – and punish any schools that didn’t deliver. Thousands of schools were officially stigmatized as “failing” when they couldn’t produce year-after-year improvements in student performance.
The House and Senate recently passed competing bills that would repeal the least popular parts of NCLB.
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Baby, meet bathwater. The House version reflects general Republican hostility toward a federal role in public education. It would limit or eliminate federal oversight. At the behest of anti-test zealots, it would make it easy for parents to opt their kids out of standardized exams. Above all, it would free states and school systems from having to answer for poor performance.
The Senate’s version – cosponsored by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – is substantially better.
Murray and Alexander aren’t sounding a complete retreat from accountability; unlike the House legislation, their bill would demand that states do something to hold districts responsible for meeting educational standards.
But even the Senate bill concedes far too much to the enemies of accountability in public education.
It is missing a critical provision: the tracking of underachieving schools. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, tried to fix this with an amendment that would require states to identify schools whose students were performing abysmally on tests and dropping out at high rates. Civil rights groups wanted it to pass – but teachers unions and most Republicans didn’t. The utterly reasonable Murphy amendment was defeated on the Senate floor.
The fate of the amendment reflects America’s time-honored tradition of concealing failure in public schools.
In one respect, No Child Left Behind was a grand success. It attacked denial. For the first time, it forced school districts and states to track and report the performance, not just of students in general, but of groups of students who have long been betrayed by low expectations.
The test scores of poor students were tracked, as were the scores of black, Latino and others whose academics have historically lagged white and Asian students. The reporting requirement itself shamed states into focusing more on disadvantaged kids. African-American and low-income students particularly benefited from the public scrutiny.
U.S. education policy will be well rid of the draconian penalties of No Child Left Behind. But American education will never do right by all the nation’s students if the federal government abdicates its unique power to hold states and school districts accountable.
Congress should be pressing for more transparency in school performance, not eliminating it. It shouldn’t be replacing No Child Left Behind with No Failing School Left Behind.