The No Child Left Behind Act has made an admitted mishmash of public education. Yet, like nothing before, the law also has schools and the public paying serious attention to how little is learned by so many students, and how inferior conditions fester in schools that enroll large numbers of black, Latino and impoverished children. They are left to struggle, barely mastering elementary reading skills, passed from one grade to the next like scholastic hot potatoes.
Still, how can one like a law so badly framed and rigidly constructed that it erects unfair and unreachable standards, encourages schools to ignore the children most in need of help, labels many a fine school as failing, and has the perverse effect of shrinking history, science and arts education and badly cutting into programs for gifted kids?
With the act up for reauthorization, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) is openly conceding that his original bill was so poorly crafted, the U.S. Education secretary was forced to connive ways around its more awkward provisions. Miller aims to make amends with the new version. Some of the changes are praiseworthy, but others undermine the essential purpose of the law.
One proposed fix is long overdue and widely applauded. Miller would get rid of the arbitrary and useless rule that schools be measured by how many students test as "proficient" each year in reading and math. Proficiency is a meaningless term because each state sets its own standard, and those standards are quite literally all over the map. But the proficiency requirement has had a more insidious effect: Schools tend to ignore students who are truly struggling and concentrate only on those who are just below proficient, who might be boosted over the bar within an academic year. And because they get no credit for pushing students from proficient to advanced, schools are neglecting the top academic performers, and gifted programs have been shrinking or dying nationwide. Miller now wants schools measured by each student's year-to-year progress, which always made a lot more sense.
Miller also has written provisions that encourage states to raise standards and put better teachers in high-poverty schools. The law would no longer hit schools that come close to their growth targets with harsh punitive measures. He includes a modest bonus program that would pay teachers for good performance, including raising test scores. Its reach is limited, but Miller deserves praise for introducing on a formal level the idea that better teachers deserve better pay.
His approach to standardized testing is clumsier. Yes, a single standardized test measuring two subjects -- reading and math -- is an inadequate measure of a school's mettle. Yes, teachers tend to "teach to the test." But at least mastering the subject matter for these tests is more than many students were doing before. Given more wiggle room, schools invariably devise ways to make their students look good while selling them short. That's a major shortcoming of Miller's plan for a pilot program that would allow local districts to come up with their own assessments. Local assessments were what we had before the accountability movement, and they failed. The way the bill is written, a majority of students nationwide could be covered by what's supposed to be an experimental program.
Miller also has written in an extensive list of other objective measures schools could use, in addition to their reading and math tests, to bolster their standing. The list is so broad, though, and can be manipulated in such different ways from school to school that it greatly complicates an already complicated law and could be used to cover up failure. Say a school does great on Advanced Placement tests -- that tells us nothing about its work with low achievers.
There's one other essential flaw in the act that Miller does not address: It still aims to bring all students up to proficiency by 2014. Let's face it. The nation will never make all of its students academically proficient, as long as proficiency is a reasonably high standard. That's like saying all Americans will be above average. Continued growth is realistic; so is narrowing the shameful gap in achievement between white and minority students. Academic stardom for all is not. The public will not trust this law until it at least is honest.
Yes, it definitely has a slant to it, but there are plenty of gems of truth in there. Actually, I think "the public" likes the law--it's the teachers unions (and their adherents) that don't like it.