How to Fix "No Child Left Behind"

Sunday, April 30, 2006

President Bush’s revamped second-term education agenda came into sharper focus in his State of the Union Address: Improve math and science achievement. This quest, however, although well intended and much needed, is likely to be impeded by the chief legacy of the president’s own first-term education agenda: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The American math and science crisis is the source of well-warranted anxiety about our economic competitiveness in a “flattening” and globalized world. It stems from two related problems: Too few U.S. students are prepared for—or actually take—advanced courses in high school and college, and too few of their teachers have mastered those subjects themselves.

NCLB made some headway on these fronts, first by demanding explicit academic standards and an end to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and, second, by demanding a “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom. It has yielded some important successes. Our public schools and those who run them are focused as never before on narrowing the stubborn achievement gaps between black and white, rich and poor. States have also tightened their standards for teachers, requiring that they demonstrate subject-matter knowledge before entering the classroom. These reforms are starting to pay off: The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show reading and math scores edging up for low-income, African American, and Hispanic fourth graders.

In a “flattening” and globalized world, the American math and science crisis impairs our economic competitiveness, plain and simple.

But NCLB has also yielded some troubling results. Because it judges schools solely by students’ prowess in reading and math, other subjects— including science—are being ignored. And because it focuses laser-like on children who score below the “proficient” level, it tempts schools to ignore high-achieving students—abetting an inexcusable waste of human potential.

NCLB has also created perverse incentives for states to set low standards and dumbed-down tests. For example, in a review of state math standards that the Fordham Foundation published last year, a panel of mathematicians found that only six states had standards that were clear, coherent, and relatively rigorous. Of these, just three—California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico—set passing scores on their eighth-grade math tests that were anywhere near the “gold standard” of proficiency as determined by the NAEP. That leaves 47 states with weak math standards, low passing scores, or both.

These flaws in NCLB undermine the president’s big new idea to train an additional 70,000 teachers to lead Advanced Placement courses in high schools in high-poverty areas. It’s a swell objective, but if students from low-income homes never learn basic science in elementary or middle school, and if nobody gets challenged in math beyond a middling notion of proficiency, how can they succeed in rigorous AP classes in high school?

The president’s answer is another federal program, a small one, called Math Now, designed to boost the rigor of math courses in grades K–8. But as long as schools’ accountability is pegged to low levels of achievement, such efforts will be mainly symbolic. Incentives work—and the vast majority of schools will continue to teach precisely what is needed to pass the tests that actually count.

What about the critical shortage of qualified math and science teachers (a shortage created largely by the unions’ insistence that physics teachers be paid the same as phys-ed teachers and math instructors the same as music teachers, ignoring the law of supply and demand)? Here the White House offers a constructive proposal that explicitly maneuvers around an NCLB-created obstacle. The president’s “adjunct teacher corps” would encourage 30,000 math and science professionals to become high school teachers, at least part-time, at least for a while. Importantly, these individuals would not be subject to NCLB’s own “highly qualified teachers” requirements, including the mandate that such instructors be “fully certified.” This exemption will keep math/science experts from having to return for meaningless education-school degrees (or slog through those same courses at night in the name of “alternative certification” programs).

Because NCLB judges schools solely by students’ prowess in reading and math, other subjects—including science—are being ignored.

But why not just fix NCLB itself ? None of these challenges is insurmountable. NCLB is up for renewal next year; with active leadership from the White House, its essential elements could be preserved and its glitches fixed. Congress could add science to the accountability equation; judge schools by the learning gains of all their students, not just those at the bottom; and open the door to “highly qualified teachers” who never set foot in a school of education. It could even create national standards and tests in math and science, rather than leaving those essential pieces to the whims of 50 states.

Add those reforms to the president’s new proposals—which dovetail with a bipartisan reform agenda already offered by Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman—and we’d have a powerful formula for math and science success in the twenty-first century. Alternatively, we can keep tinkering and grumbling and hoping that the education systems of our economic competitors remain similarly stagnant. (Don’t bet on it.) The choice is ours.

The content of this article is only available in the print edition.