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The Sacramento Bee


Should Congress Revamp and Renew the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act?

October 05, 2011

By Ben Boychuk

The Issue: No Child Left Behind, the controversial 2001 federal education law, is long overdue for an overhaul as states fast approach a 2014 deadline to ensure 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in reading and math. As Congress debates at least five different bills reauthorizing the law, the Obama administration is granting some states waivers from the deadline — with certain strings attached.

Ben Boychuk: No

No Child Left Behind is an object lesson in why the federal government should be out of the education business. President Barack Obama’s solutions for education reform are as prescriptive and bureaucratic as George W. Bush’s were a decade ago. It’s a bipartisan mess.

Despite decades of bitter experience, however, Republicans and Democrats in Congress remain wedded to the notion that the federal government needs to “do something” about education.

If 45 years of greater federal meddling in K-12 education had resulted in higher test scores and greater academic achievement, there might be a case for it. Federal K-12 education spending under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act soared from under $2 billion in 1966, when Congress first passed the law, to about $25 billion in 2005, where it’s remained more or less flat. But that doesn’t include one-time stimulus money, $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money, school lunch subsidies and the like.

What did that money buy? Not as much as you’d expect. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, high school seniors’ reading and math scores improved modestly in 2010, but remained below where they were in 1992 when the test was first administered. Students’ knowledge of civics, history and science has stagnated. And the achievement gulf between white and black students remains depressingly wide.

Some conservative reformers argue that No Child Left Behind established an “accountability framework” that’s worth preserving. Trouble is, the federal law created incentives for states to dumb down rather than raise standards in order to reach that all-important 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Obama’s proposed new goal for all American students to be “college and career ready” by 2020 is no more realistic.

Waivers and more centralization are not the answer. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has said he’s reluctant to seek a NCLB waiver because it could cost the state billions of dollars to comply with new mandates. For once, I agree with him.

Better to let states and schools cut through red tape, rather than encumber them with more of it. Several proposals winding through Congress right now would eliminate or combine existing programs to give states more flexibility to spend about $20 billion in federal “No Child” funds.

The A-PLUS Act by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would let states opt out of No Child Left Behind altogether and receive federal education funds as a block grant. That isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a start.

Pia Lopez: Yes

At the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a boy, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This first federal general aid-to-education program provided programs to help educate disadvantaged children.

At the time, Johnson said, “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”

He also had been a teacher in a small town where most students were poor and Hispanic. He knew what it meant to “bridge the gap between helplessness and hope” for children.

Decades later, another president from Texas criticized the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and declared that “too many of our neediest children are being left behind.”

President George W. Bush reauthorized the 1965 act, ambitiously dubbed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

It increased accountability for schools and provided greater choice for parents and students, particularly those attending low-performing schools.

Ten years on, critics like Ben believe the law is “unredeemable” and should be scrapped. Yet the goal of a federal commitment to educational opportunity for the neediest children remains valid, as does the idea of enforcing accountability for schools that receive federal dollars.

This is no time to go back on the core of No Child Left Behind: annual assessments for every student in grades 3-8, report cards for every school showing achievement for all groups of students (not just schoolwide averages), and consequences for schools not meeting expectations.

The controversial part has been the requirement to bring all students up to grade level in reading and math by 2014. Certainly there is merit in tweaking the law to allow states to measure student growth from the beginning of a school year to the end — distinguishing schools that are moving significantly in the right direction but have not yet gotten all students on grade level and those schools that show little or no progress.

As Ben notes, troubling achievement gaps remain. But results from the National Assessment of Education Progress do show tremendous gain, particularly in elementary schools.

For example, in reading, 9-year-olds scored 12 points higher in 2008 than in 1971 — black students, 34 points higher. In mathematics, 9-year-olds saw a 24-point increase over 1973 — black students, a 34-point increase.

Ben is right that improvements tend to drop off at the high school level; kids tested at age 17 are doing little better today than they did in the 1970s. This should be a call to action, not a time to go soft on school improvement. Congress should get on with the task of reauthorization.

Original Source:



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