July 23, 2024

Fixing No Child Left Behind

George Bush’s most positive contribution to American society may be the No Child Left Behind Act.

This is not saying much given that NCLB is a train wreck that one simply can’t look away from.  I mean that quite literally – we can’t look away.  We can’t afford to.

Most Americans have absolutely no choice about how their children are educated.  Only those wealthly enough to elect to pay twice and teach their children at home or send them to private schools have options.  The rest of us are forced to endure the educational equivalent of waterboarding as our children suffer through 12 years of a failed system, only to emerge unprepared to compete intellectually against their peers in the rest of the world.

(The majority of Americans believe the current, compulsory state of the education system is an inalienable right.  This is not correct; however, I’ll assume it for the duration of this post.)

Dan Lips of the The Heritage Foundation says that the best way to make sure our children get the education they need is to allow states to set their own standards for achievement:

Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced a bill that would let states opt out of many of the mandates imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Under the new approach, states would be free to use federal education funds as they see fit, provided they maintain student testing to assess their progress and make the test results publicly available.

The law requires states to test students annually and offers a menu of penalties for schools that fail to show progress on those exams.

Some states are “dumbing down” their exams to let more students pass and more schools show “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB.

Ironically, the No Child Left Behind “opt-out” provision is the most promising way to protect the goals of the law: to make public education truly transparent and accountable.

Lips gets one of his points right:  American schools that fail to meet standards should not be punished for the failure of their students to perform.  That is, federal funds should not be removed from these schools because of test performance.

Why?  Because the students at these schools need all the help they can get and taking away the ~8% of their schools’ budgets provided by the feds will not improve the situation.

This is not to say that there should not be consequences for schools’ failures.  State regulatory bodies and school administrators must assume responsibility for the children they have in their care.  If they do not deliver results they – not the children – should be made to fall on the sword.  That’s being held accountable.
To make this a reasonable requirement, these regulators and administrators must be free to staff schools as needed to get the job done.  This means eliminating the highly-unionized, “job for life” system that is currently in place in public schools.

This will not be popular with the powerful unions.  But accountability demands freedom to act, freedom to fail, and freedom to succeed.  Currently too many incompetent or marginal teachers and local administrators are kept in their jobs by the non-competitive nature of our schools’ human resources system.  This is simply not acceptable.

Lips’ idea that control – and therefore responsibility – must be pushed down to the local level is the right one.  At the same time, local districts must also adhere to certain “best practices” of administration, policy, curriculum, and grading and someone must enforce these standards.

It’s foolish to think that we can simply return to a system of local control without centralized oversight.  We’ve tried that before with dismal results.  To “trust but verify”, as Ronald Reagan famously said, seems to be the correct model.

At the moment, one all-to-common practice at the local level that would certainly not meet Regean’s criteria for passing verification is schools’ practice of forcing teachers to give a 50% grade on homework and/or tests turned in by a student.

Trust me on this as one who knows – this happens at many, many schools.  The inevitable result is that grades are given to students that were simply not earned.  Turning in sheets of paper with a name on them gets students most of the way to passing classes.  This too is completely unacceptable and must be stopped.

Students, one must understand, know how to play the system and they understand how to get something for nothing.  They also feel in their guts that they are being rewarded for something they didn’t earn and the result is a disdain for the entire system that isn’t entirely unjustified.

Some central oversight is therefore required.  And that’s not all that’s needed from the ivory tower folks in D.C.

Part of holding state and local administrators accountable for their students’ progress is measuring that progress, as George Bush knows well and rightly insists on.  High-stakes testing is an important part of NCLB.  However, states’ ability to set their own standards has made a joke out of this delegation of responsibility.

States such as Illinois, Tennessee, and Oklahoma have lowered standards to the point that they are not even trying to measure academic achievement.  This demonstrates exactly what one would expect:  those responsible for meeting a standard cannot be allowed to set that standard.

If we are to have meaningful testing of students’ performance and use that testing as a tool to ensure state and local educators are performing as required, those tests and standards must be developed and enforced at a higher level.

America needs a standardized achievement testing system and we need it to be established by the federal government.  Furthermore, we need a system that local districts cannot “teach to” (and thereby cheat) by simply instructing students about how to take the tests while neglecting the real business of educating them.

This is what is needed to maximize our results from public education, not a handing of unmanaged authority and money back to local districts.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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