Congress will soon weigh proposals for tweaking the landmark No Child Left Behind education act, up for reauthorization after five years.
Even supporters agree that the law needs some adjustments if it is to meet the daunting goal of having 100 percent of children proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Nationally, thousands of public schools, most in poor urban districts, have failed to make adequate yearly progress by the law's standards. For perspective, in Connecticut, a state noted for its emphasis on education, about a third of elementary and middle schools failed to meet those standards in the 2006-07 school year. Twelve districts, all urban, have been on the watch list for five years and face sanctions.
To meet the requirements of the law, the percentage of students reaching proficiency gets higher every year. Total compliance may be unrealistic, given that all students, including those with learning disabilities and language difficulties, are held to the same standards.
But the point should not be to try to opt out of the requirements, but to try harder to raise the education level of all students. There have been many success stories. In Hartford, Jumoke Academy, a charter school in the North End, was removed from the watch list for meeting federal goals two years in a row. Betances School, despite being in one of Hartford's poorest neighborhoods, made an enormous leap in reading and math scores, the largest in the district.
This took concentrated effort, creativity and a positive attitude. Some of the reasons cited for the progress at Jumoke were extended school days, Saturday and summer classes and the hiring of more experienced teachers. These are proper responses to the law, yet some critics would prefer to water down the requirements.
That would be a mistake. Any reforms to No Child Left Behind should leave accountability measures intact. A draft reauthorization bill being discussed in the House contains provisions that would allow schools to demonstrate proficiency by indicating progress in subjects other than math and reading as well as elements such as attendance and graduation rates. What good is showing up if a child can't read?
Another provision would set up a pilot program allowing districts to devise their own measures of progress. That's a bit like giving teenagers the keys to the liquor closet. Such a system didn't close the achievement gap before No Child Left Behind, and there's no reason to think it would work better now.
The law isn't perfect. But it has focused needed attention on the truth: Public schools have failed low-income and minority students in a big way. Whatever it takes, that must stop. The nation's economic prosperity depends on it.
Lawmakers should concentrate not on ways to ease restrictions, but on how better to help teachers and school districts meet the challenge of No Child Left Behind and beyond. A Government Accountability Office report recommends that the secretary of education provide better guidance for schools needing corrective action and take steps to insure that districts provide the required assistance to those schools. This is a good place to start the discussion.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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