Friday, December 08, 2006

Why the Achievement Gap Persists

This article appropriately addresses the need for our nation to address teacher quality. "Instead, the department simply ignored the provision until recently and allowed states to behave as though the teacher quality problem did not exist." -Angela

December 8, 2006
Why the Achievement Gap Persists

The No Child Left Behind education act, which requires the states to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students in exchange for federal aid, has been under heavy fire since it was passed five years ago. Critics, some of whom never wanted accountability in the first place, have ratcheted up their attacks in anticipation of Congressional hearings and a reauthorization process that could get under way soon after the new Congress convenes in January.

Those critics were empowered by a spate of recent studies showing that the nation has made slight overall progress in closing the achievement gap since the law went into effect. (A handful, including New York and New Jersey, are said to have made moderate progress.) The data has been seized upon as evidence that Congress set the bar too high.

Generally, the opponents do not argue that impoverished children can never be educated up to the same standards as the wealthy. They simply say it will take much longer than the law permits. In the world of education reform, where ambitious programs generally last only as long as it takes for the schools to fail to meet the first target, endless deferral of deadlines would be a death knell for No Child Left Behind.

And the country can’t afford that. Unless we improve schools — especially for minority children who will make up the work force of the future — we will fall behind our competitors abroad who are doing a better job of educating the next generation.

It’s impossible to brand No Child Left Behind as a failure, because its agenda has never been carried out. The law was supposed to remake schools that serve poor and minority students by breaking with the age-old practice of staffing those schools with poorly trained and poorly educated teachers. States were supposed to provide students with highly qualified teachers in all core courses by the beginning of the current academic year. That didn’t happen.

The country would be much further down the road toward complying with No Child Left Behind if the Department of Education had given the states clear direction and the technical assistance they needed. Instead, the department simply ignored the provision until recently and allowed states to behave as though the teacher quality problem did not exist. Thanks to this approach, the country must now start from scratch on what is far and away the most crucial provision of the law.

Getting up to speed will not be easy. Most states lack even the most basic systems for overseeing teacher training and the teacher assignment process. Worse still, the practice of dumping poorly qualified teachers into the schools that serve the poorest, neediest children has become second nature in many places.

The battle for teacher quality is just getting under way. The country can either win that battle or watch its fortunes fade as the national work force becomes less and less competitive. Given what’s at stake, the teacher quality provision of No Child Left Behind deserves to be at the very top of the list when Congress revisits the law.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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