Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A New Year for School Reform

This piece takes at face value the positive trend of "nudging scores." It fails to take the dropout rate into consideration and how these trends also connect to it. Relentless myopia? Willful myopia? How many children we're losing, who are "getting disappeared" should be our real focus. -Angela

December 31, 2006
A New Year for School Reform

The No Child Left Behind Act broke new ground when it required the states to educate impoverished children up to the same standards as their affluent counterparts, in exchange for federal aid. The law did not just drop out of the sky. It represented a deliberate attempt by Congress to ratify and accelerate the school reform effort that swept the country in the early 1990’s, when the states began to embrace standards-based accountability systems that quickly showed promising results.

The achievement gains have fallen far short of what Congress hoped for when it passed the landmark federal law — and also far short of what the country needs to keep pace with its economic rivals. In addition, student performance has flattened in recent years. In many cases, that is because states that reaped all of the early, easy gains that are typically achieved by merely paying attention to a long-neglected problem failed to do the tougher work necessary to sustain their reforms.

Recent studies offer sobering news about the challenges that lie ahead. Happily, there is also encouraging news from the states that have stayed the course and continued to build rigorous, standards-based reforms.

The value of the standards movement itself was underscored this year in an analysis that was part of Education Week magazine’s annual survey of student achievement. Analyzing student performance between 1992 and 2005, the study found clear signs of progress, especially in fourth-grade math performance, which had gone up nearly two grade levels since 1992. Black and Hispanic students, by the way, showed larger gains than their white counterparts over that same period. Had the scores of white students not risen at all, the progress by black and Hispanic students would have substantially erased the white-minority achievement gap.

The news was less heartening in reading performance, which inched up only about two points over the same time period. Even so, Education Week found that reading achievement for black, Hispanic and low-income fourth graders had risen at nearly three times the national average.

Low-income students still lag far behind their affluent counterparts. But the data in a subsequent study by the Fordham Foundation shows that states that commit to rigorous standards and accountability systems can make progress in this difficult area. The bad news is that only eight states even achieved what Fordham described as “moderate progress.”

Those states are: Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington and California. In California especially, statewide reforms (and, in Los Angeles, dynamic leadership by the former superintendent, Roy Romer) are clearly having an effect. These gains are tentative and will certainly evaporate if the states lose momentum. But they show that performance for low-income students can be nudged upward if states hew to rigorous reforms.

That bad news is that too few states are actually doing that.

With the easy achievement gains already behind us, the next level of progress will require rigorous systemic change. The states, for example, will need to adopt rigorous examinations that track the federal test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more closely. They will have to crack down on state teachers colleges that turn out poor graduates, and devise ways — including differential pay — to persuade highly qualified teachers to work in failing schools that they have historically avoided. To move forward, the country must also find new ways to support and transform failing schools, beyond labeling them failures and presuming that the stigma will inspire better performance.

These are difficult issues. But they are the ones that Congress needs to focus on as it moves toward reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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