Stormi Greener, Star Tribune

Charlie Weaver: Is education measuring up?

  • Article by: CHARLIE WEAVER
  • August 22, 2011 - 9:33 PM

"You can't improve what you don't measure" is a simple truth that is proved over and over again in both the public and private sectors.

Whether it's measuring how we are doing in our jobs, the statistics of our favorite athletes or comparing the features of nearly any product we buy, measurement is a part of our daily lives.

The converse is also true: Things that don't get measured often don't improve -- particularly when there are no consequences.

And that's why the recent decision by officials in Minnesota's Department of Education to formally ask the Obama administration for a waiver from provisions of No Child Left Behind is so disappointing.

NCLB was passed in 2001 with the purpose of ensuring that all students, regardless of race or economic status, are academically prepared for life after high school.

A requirement of NCLB is that each state set rigorous academic standards for all students, measure progress toward those standards and report the results. If the results of testing reveal that a school is failing, officials must make changes necessary to help those students succeed.

For some schools, this new focus has revealed embarrassing failure -- particularly among students of color.

For example, only 33 percent of African-American students in Minneapolis (grades three through eight) can read at grade level. At one Minneapolis high school, less than 3 percent of African-American students are proficient in math.

Not knowing these results -- and being free from the consequences -- might be preferable for some school officials. But for our state's employers, and for society as a whole, that is a disaster.

One of the revolutionary features of NCLB -- and a primary target of the state's waiver request -- are the options given to low-income families in persistently underachieving schools.

NCLB provides that if a school isn't able to help its students meet expectations for three consecutive years, low-income families have access to a portion of the federal funds the school received to help pay for tutoring services.

The goal is to enable low-income families to secure the added services their children need to be successful. Why do we want a waiver from that?

Our fear is that absent the required remediation for failing schools and the testing that is used to provide extra help for students in need, the tests themselves will soon be shelved and forgotten.

If that were to happen, it wouldn't be the first time our state has tried to avoid an embarrassing problem rather than face up to it.

Until two years ago Minnesota required that high school students be proficient in basic 11th-grade math in order to graduate. When school officials realized that too many students might fail the test, they lobbied the Legislature to eliminate the test rather than figuring how to improve student performance.

Maybe that's why research shows that nearly 40 percent of Minnesota high school graduates who will show up on college campuses in the next few weeks will need remediation.

In Minnesota, though we have some of the highest-performing students in the world, we also have one of the largest achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students.

Leaving thousands of underserved children to languish in schools that aren't meeting their academic needs isn't simply a drag on our education system; it is also a societal problem that will strain government budgets and welfare programs for decades to come.

Seeking a waiver from NCLB's requirement that failing schools face consequences that can lead to improvement seems unwise.

All too often, when the needs of the student come into conflict with the needs of the education system, the system wins. That some education officials would back away from a program that has done much of what it was designed to do is remarkable, and disappointing.

No one is claiming that NCLB can't be improved; I agree with those who argue that some changes are necessary. But eliminating the consequences for schools that fail to measure up -- just because it is hard -- is a step in the wrong direction.

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Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 100 CEOs from Minnesota's largest employers.

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