Soapbox Philosophy: New school law will need NCLB’s teeth
Op-Ed · August 15, 2013

No Child Left Behind just entered the last year of its 12-year lifespan, and, despite some legitimate concerns, it has undeniably improved education in public K-12 schools.
I was on the education beat at a daily newspaper when Republican President Bush proposed NCLB in 2001 and was surprised to see Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy champion the legislation. With those two involved, passage of true education reform went from “if” to “when.” A year later, it became law.

Recently, George W. Bush Institute Director of Education Reform Kerri Biggs released a statement encouraging reauthorization of NCLB with some updates to address notable problems, like testing special education students with streamlined students — which is part of the original legislation — and school waivers passed and signed last year by President Obama.

However, Biggs’ argument against lowering standards includes information from the Institute’s Global Report Card, which includes terribly skewed data. Of the 196 countries in the world, only 23 of them have compulsory education like the United States. Of the 26 countries analyzed by the Global Report Card, only 12 of them have compulsory education.

In countries without compulsory education, generally only the smartest children or those from the wealthiest families get to attend. Children of wealthy families tend to have more stable home lives and better access to technology, allowing them to perform better than children from low-income or unstable family homes.

To be fair, Biggs specifically notes that U.S. pupils score “well below countries like Singapore in science.” Singapore does have compulsory education.

But in the next statement, she says “countries such as Russia and Hong Kong, meanwhile, bested us in eighth-grade reading.” Neither of those have compulsory education.

If you’re wondering, West Branch in 2009 scored better in math and reading than 53 percent of other pupils in the 26 developed countries measured by the Bush Institute.

What made NCLB so compelling is that it did not set federal education standards, but instead used existing standards set by each state. It also set the bar low for the first year: only 40 percent of pupils — in whole or in demographic sub-classes — needed to meet those standards to be in compliance.

Each year, that minimum increased until 2013-14, when all schools are supposed to be at 100 percent.

Fall behind, and a school gets placed on a “watch list.” Continue to do so, and eventually you could lose federal funding. In the poorer areas of the country, this was particularly troubling. For the largest school I covered, that amounted to about $1 million.

What made it even harder was that schools that were under-performing had to allow families the option of sending their children to nearby districts in hopes that they would fare better, and the school had to then send its state aid for that child to the new district.

The Illinois secretary of education told me that he had no intention of easing state standards so schools could meet the federal guidelines. You would think every state would do the same, but Missouri not only openly lowered its standards, it also applied for — and received — a waiver from meeting NCLB standards.

That was an immense disservice to children and sends a strong message that that state cares little about education.

If you think that is harsh, remember this: State standards are a minimum standard. To say that 100 percent of your school district is meeting state standards is not impressive — it means that all of the kids scored a “C” or possibly higher on their tests.

However, by creating a system that brings below-average pupils up to average, you also tend to bring B-level students up to A-level students. It’s hard to lift some of the kids in a classroom without lifting them all.

Schools that were falling behind, or saw the minimum quickly catching up to them, were forced to act and many came up with great innovations despite no significant increases in funding.

Legislators are now working on a replacement for No Child Left Behind, and none of the ones I’ve heard of come close to reaching the standards — the low standards — of NCLB. That’s troubling.

No good system will include waivers that give struggling schools a chance to opt out without significant penalties. One improvement over NCLB would be to better address testing for special education pupils, but as I write that, I fear many schools would feel compelled to label more children with learning disabilities just to make it easier to meet standards.

Whatever replaces NCLB will have to keep its strengths while also fixing its shortcomings.

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