March 18, 2010

Moving Beyond No Child Left Behind

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President Barack Obama’s proposed public education reforms take positive steps to roll back some of the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind, but his administration needs to make several changes before asking Congress to act on its proposal.

The Obama plan should be applauded for scrapping the unrealistic goal of 100-percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Teachers and administrators knew this was a laughable goal when NCLB was passed in 2001, and its main effect has been to inspire a race to the bottom: States have lowered education standards so that more students are deemed proficient.

Obama also recognizes that schools should be evaluated on the basis of student progress, not on whether they have met a specific target. This measure gives hope to low-performing schools, since they are rewarded for bringing students closer to proficiency. Incremental improvement is key.

Most importantly, Obama’s plan would greatly reduce the number of schools labeled as failing, which is currently one-third of all public schools. This step would help schools escape from the negative feedback loop in which teachers — despite knowing many of their students will perform poorly — are forced to continually submit them to standardized testing in order to confirm that their school is still failing.

However, Obama has been rightly criticized by teachers’ unions and other education groups for supporting the wholesale firing of teachers and administrators in schools which fail to improve. A recent incident at a Rhode Island high school, in which all 77 teachers were dismissed because students had made insufficient progress, provides a scary glimpse into what may happen if Obama’s plan passes. There are many factors which affect student performance, and firing every teacher — both good and bad — is an extraordinarily simple solution to a complex problem.

The unions have also correctly pointed out that teacher merit pay is a poor incentive to improve student performance. Although this idea is popular with administrators like Washington D.C. Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee ’92, it fosters too much competition between teachers and encourages them to “teach to the test” by focusing on reading and writing at the expense of subjects like history, science and the fine arts.Obama’s plan focuses on rewarding the top 10 percent and punishing the bottom 5 percent of schools, but it is unclear what will happen to the middle 85 percent. These schools should continue to receive federal incentives if they improve, and should not be allowed to tread water while attention is focused on those at the very top and bottom.

Any attempt to create national education standards should also preserve states’ flexibility. Administrators in Massachusetts, for example, have expressed concern that proposed national standards would force them to lower their own standards. Our federal government should define the floor, not the ceiling, for measuring achievement.The Obama administration’s goal to establish “college- and career-ready standards” is necessary to keep our education system competitive in the face of globalization. Proposals to target high dropout rates and provide unprecedented levels of funding for teacher development will undoubtedly strengthen public education in our nation. In pushing for reform, though, Obama must heed the concerns of teachers and administrators to ensure that the next administration will not need to overhaul education in America once again.