On 'No Child', No Going Back
By: Sandy Kress
Published: April 30, 2011
It is certainly no secret that our nation's students are not achieving at the level they should. But here's a secret that seems to be well hidden: Our younger students, particularly those that are disadvantaged, have made dramatic achievement gains in the 2000s, reversing a stagnant trend in the previous decade.
Did you know that in 2008, African American 9-year-olds were reading two grade levels ahead of where they were in 1999? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, this is true.
Did you know that in 2008, Hispanic 9-year-olds were handling math problems two grade levels ahead of where they were in 1999? This is also true.
Did you know that in 2009, eighth-grade students with disabilities were reading almost two grade levels above where they were in 2000? Again, this is true.
Even though reading scores for 13-year-olds are flat (a national problem we have yet to address), it is also true that African American13-year-olds fully caught up the grade level they dropped in the 1990s and gained another half grade level by 2008. This progress in the 2000s narrowed the Caucasian-African American gap by roughly a grade level.
What has caused these and other similar gains? Most researchers say the biggest factor was that in the late 1990s, states began to implement policies holding schools accountable for improving education for children. Further, in 2001, the Congress extended those policies to schools in all states through the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.
Today, if schools shortchange students, especially subgroups of disadvantaged students, improvement in the operation of the school is required. Student problems can no longer be swept under the rug. Because of "consequential accountability," business as usual is no longer acceptable.
Make no mistake: Much more than accountability is needed, and we have a long way to go. But accountability works. It must stay. And indeed its reach must be extended to those grades that have not yet experienced growth, especially in high schools.
Now, here's the second big secret: For all of its promise to bring about education reform early in the term, the Obama administration wants to turn back the clock on accountability.
No Child Left Behind does indeed need to be fixed and updated. But it would be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water to abandon its pillars of accountability.
Yet this is precisely what the administration is proposing to do.
Under the framework being proposed for the reform of the law, the administration would require that, unless a school is among the very worst in the nation, it would no longer be required to improve even if it continues to fail its African American, Hispanic and other disadvantaged kids. Further, in the case of schools that do not improve, special tutoring and public school choice would no longer be required.
President Obama recently showed up at a middle school to argue that No Child Left Behind unfairly identified the school as in need of improvement. Yet, here's the secret he did not disclose in his speech: Only slightly more than half of the African American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students in the school are proficient in math!
Why would we abandon a policy that forces such schools that fail disadvantaged students to improve?
Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently spoke at a gala for the American Association of People with Disabilities, proclaiming, "I remain your champion, your advocate and your servant."
The secret he did not tell the group was that his blueprint for reauthorizing No Child would remove students with disabilities from accountability in all but the very worst schools.
Citizens know we must go beyond NCLB, but they know we cannot afford to go backwards. In our competitive global economy, where the good jobs will mainly go to the best educated, we must strengthen our expectations, not weaken them.
For some Republicans and some Democrats, it is very tempting to return to the days before accountability. That would certainly ease the pressure on local bureaucrats. Some union leaders, too, would prefer lifting the pressure to perform.
The easy path is not the better path. Taking the easy path, we risk returning to the old results as well as the old policies. We risk losing the intense competition for good jobs with countries that do not mind setting their expectations high and holding themselves accountable.
We all have high aspirations for our children. The question is whether we will do all that is necessary, even when it is politically difficult, to help them achieve them.
Published April 18th 2011 in NY Daily News. Mr. Kress was President George W. Bush's first senior education adviser and helped design No Child Left Behind.