Even if you don’t follow education policy, you know these four words: No Child Left Behind. That’s the landmark 2002 law pushed by President George W. Bush to bring all students up to federal reading and math standards by 2014.
For the first time, schools nationally would be held accountable for children’s academic progress. NCLB turned attention from educrats and their too-often-ineffective programs to students’ progress and to ending what Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Now, 2014 approaches. And it has been clear for years that almost every school district in the country would fail to meet those ambitious federal goals. The law desperately needs to be updated to make it more practical and effective. But Congress has dithered.
This country needs a law that builds on the successes of NCLB. What should that law say? As luck would have it, Education Department waivers provide a blueprint. Taken together:
• They ratchet up pressure on public schools to produce more college-ready graduates.
• They insist on teacher evaluation systems based on performance as documented by the variable that matters most: student academic growth.
• They acknowledge that schools where a tiny subset of students narrowly misses a test mark are not the same as “dropout factories” where reading and math proficiency scores wallow.
Under these waivers, the worst schools require — and receive — most of the federal and state attention to improve. The rest of the schools gain increased flexibility to help students boost scores.
What makes us think a new NCLB law based on waivers would be rigorous — and stringently enforced?
Granted, that’s a huge concern. Entrenched forces within the public education industry, from statehouses to schoolyards, are forever seeking ways to duck accountability. Those who don’t want the rest of us to focus on whether students progress bitterly oppose consequences for chronic failure.