The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) enters its terrible twos this week, and already the tantrums have begun. But so has a new commitment to improving academic results around the nation, and to providing parents with new, well- informed choices about their children’s education. Recent headlines have often gone to the law’s detractors, rather than to the low, grinding sounds of states and school districts shifting their machineries toward standards-based education and academic progress. To some extent this is understandable: change has happened slowly, and many of the most promising success stories are still in the early stages of implementation.
It is an unfortunate fact, however, that most education bureaucracies (and elected officials) are not accustomed to being held accountable for the academic improvement of their students. This might add to the volume of those officials’ protestations, but not to the integrity of their resistance.
While he is certainly not the law’s only critic, few have protested louder than Governor Howard Dean, currently the frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In recent months he has branded the law “a draconian takeover of local and state control,” blasting its reliance on standardized test scores and calling its accountability measures burdensome and inflexible. “The law leads schools to dumb down tests so they can show ‘progress,’”
Governor Dean added in a statement to the American Federation of Teachers. Governor Dean is correct to point out that under NCLB, states set their own academic standards and define adequate levels of student progress. As can be expected, these vary substantia lly. The federal Department of Education has also granted states a great deal of latitude in establishing these plans, including the timeframes with which they are implemented. But states are required to make annual progress toward these academic goals for all categories of students. Families in underperforming schools that fail to improve students’ performance over a period of years are given unprecedented new options to seek alternatives. Such options are not about dismantling public education – they are about giving all parents equal opportunities to be informed and empowered consumers.
One good example of how this system has worked so far is the way states have responded to the law’s provisions for the nation’s 5 million English learners. “It is important to note that Florida, like every other state in the nation, had previously not assessed reading, writing and comprehension [for English learners’ progress toward fluency] in grades K-3,” said one recent NCLB document the state submitted to the federal Department of Education. This remarkable observation indicates just how valuable the law has become to this crucial segment of our nation’s schoolchildren.
It is also accurate to note that under NCLB, keeping academic standards high remains the states’ responsibility. If state officials attempt to “dumb down” standards to continue to register progress, they must be held accountable by parents, voters and anyone else with a stake in their schools’ success. Such ‘growing pains’ may be causing temporary discomfort, but the benefits for America’s schoolchildren should be lasting indeed.
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