Flexibility Is Not What Is Needed

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Recently, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was lauded for announcing a shift in administration policy on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Washington’s ambitious plan to improve U.S. public schools. States that adhere to the basic tenets of NCLB will now enjoy greater flexibility in how they satisfy the law’s goal of every student becoming proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Some states are demanding still greater leeway. Utah, Texas, and Connecticut, for example, are bridling at some NCLB requirements and seeking exemptions from them. Yet flexibility is not the solution to NCLB implementation challenges. Despite all the complaining that this law is too tough on our schools, the truth is that it’s not tough enough.

In 2002, only a third of U.S. students were proficient in reading and math; a third finished their schooling as functional illiterates; almost a third didn’t finish at all. NCLB seeks to alter that dismal picture. It’s meant to change the education practices of schools, districts, and states. Most of the grumbling comes from places that don’t want to change.

Experience has demonstrated that, by setting concrete achievement goals and holding schools accountable (with incentives and sanctions) for achieving them, student achievement rises. A new study by the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education makes it clear that states with accountability systems in place outgained states without them. NCLB sets guidelines to ensure such gains. By 2006, states must test their students and provide annual report cards on their schools’ performance. States must also ensure that all teachers are knowledgeable in their subject areas and report those who are not. Transparency drives improvement.

NCLB requires schools to make adequate yearly progress toward full proficiency by 2014. Otherwise parents have the right to switch public schools or receive private tutoring. Finally, NCLB increases federal funding to the schools by roughly 50 percent.

Three years into this ambitious law’s implementation, the Bush administration is being pressed by school administrators, teacher unions, legislators, and at least one state attorney general to ease up on its enforcement. Wrong, concludes the Koret Task Force. In fact, NCLB should be strengthened in the following key particulars:

  • State proficiency standards vary widely, with some declining, portending a “race to the bottom” that contradicts the high standards intended by Congress. And vexing differences exist between states. For example, according to national test scores, Colorado and California are at essentially the same level of student achievement. Yet by Colorado’s definition, 80 percent of its students are already proficient, whereas California says that just 40 percent of its students are. Discrepant standards lead to different results.

  • Some states have used the discretion afforded by NCLB to back load their achievement targets until close to 2014. This leaves schools free to put off major improvements, practically ensuring that those schools will be labeled failures later in the decade.

  • NCLB mandates that every classroom have a “highly qualified teacher.” Some states have adopted tests and requirements that make it far too easy to acquire this designation. Today states claim that nearly 90 percent of their teachers are “highly qualified”—even in inner cities—which is almost farcical given current levels of achievement. As currently applied, NCLB won’t significantly improve the quality of teachers.

  • NCLB’s choice and private tutoring options are being stoutly resisted by the school districts responsible for implementing them. Only 1 percent of eligible students have transferred schools, and just 10 percent are being tutored. Such numbers fall far short of the potential and give NCLB far less chance of succeeding.

These shortcomings can and should be repaired. Here’s how:

  • All state proficiency standards should be calibrated against the national assessment program. States should be ranked by the rigor of their standards; those above the national median should be given extra time to reach the 100 percent proficiency level. States below the median would be encouraged to lift their standards.

  • Instead of intermediate-growth targets that invite back loading, schools should be given statistical forecasts to predict their progress toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency. Schools that fall below the trajectory needed to reach that goal would be deemed “in need of improvement.”

  • A highly qualified teacher should be defined everywhere as one with a bachelor’s degree and one of the following (1) a college major in the subject being taught, (2) a passing grade on a rigorous test of subject matter, or (3) evidence that one’s teaching has raised student scores.

  • States, not local school systems, should shoulder responsibility for NCLB’s choice provisions. Eligible students should have more transfer options, including district schools, charter schools, even private schools, thus ensuring that families have bona fide alternatives.

Congress and the Bush administration have the chance to bring about dramatic and desperately needed improvements in the United States’ public schools. But this will only occur if they strengthen NCLB in line with its admirable principles and goals rather than weakening it in the name of flexibility.