This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Ten years after it was enacted, the No Child Left Behind Act needs overhauling. On that there is little disagreement.
But on how to do it? A lot of disagreement.
A polarized Congress hasn’t done anything to address the flaws in the education legislation that was a centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s presidency. The Obama administration’s unilateral decision to grant states waivers from the law should prod Congress to make substantive changes in NCLB.
The waivers – which are allowed under NCLB – would let states bypass 10 provisions of the act, including the requirement that all children show proficiency in reading and math by 2014. In return, states would have to impose their own standards to prepare students for college and careers and adopt more stringent performance-based evaluation standards for teachers and principals.
NCLB has served an important purpose by focusing money and attention on the worst-performing schools and the children who had few alternatives to attending them.
It has inspired many states – including Washington – to establish core academic standards and demand more accountability from teachers and administrators. And there’s some evidence that it has played a key role in improving reading and math scores for some age groups of black and Hispanic children.
But the way NCLB measures a school’s success is so inflexible – requiring that most of year-over-year improvement benchmarks be met – that even good schools risk being labeled as failures if only a few children’s test scores haven’t improved. That can trigger a series of federal sanctions, including the closure and complete restructuring of a school.
Educators have complained that the punishment involved if a school fails to see year-over-year improvement has led to “teaching to the test,” cutting or eliminating subjects that aren’t tested (including history, science, the arts and foreign languages), and even cheating.
By granting waivers, the Obama administration wants to shift from punishing underperformers to inspiring and rewarding success. The stick hasn’t been working so well, so why not try the carrot?
The waivers don’t eliminate the need for Congress to act. No Child Left Behind has kept useful heat on public schools, but it needs tweaking to address the weaknesses 10 years have revealed.