Thursday, October 25, 2007

Turning back the clock on education reform

Lois Meyer (see earlier post) refers to Navarrette's recent column. I tracked it down so others could read this, too.
Navarrette hasn't spent time in schools and it shows. -Angela

Turning back the clock on education reform

September 30, 2007

This could be the end of the line for No Child Left Behind. And some educators couldn't be happier.

The 5-year-old education reform law – one of the most important of its kind in the last half-century – is controversial, though it should not have been. After all, what it proposes is fairly tame. It requires that all students perform at grade level in reading and math by 2014 and relies on regular tests to gauge how well students – and by implication, teachers and administrators – are doing toward reaching that goal. It also separates data by racial and ethnic subgroups to get a sense of which groups of students are in the greatest distress. Lastly, it helps students with limited English by preventing schools from testing them in their native language in perpetuity.

That's NCLB in a nutshell. The law is up for reauthorization this year, and it has the misfortune of having to get through a Congress that is now controlled by Democrats, who get their assignments from teachers unions that ply them with campaign cash.

Those unions would like to see NCLB ground into itty-bitty pieces. They're so desperate to maintain control over the educational process and help their members duck accountability that they're willing to put their own interests before those of children. That isn't new. Public schools have, for generations, crafted an environment that caters to the needs and wants of the adults who work in the schools rather than those of the children who attend them.

How many days should there be in the school year? How long should the school day be? What tests should we give, and when should we give them? And what should be the consequences when students don't do well?

Does anyone really believe that when the grown-ups sit down in school board meetings or state legislatures to make these decisions and others about how schools operate that what's top of mind is the interests of children who don't vote, or give money, or twist arms, or pay union dues? If so, they need to grow up.

Interestingly, the law is also encountering token resistance from some Republicans who represent suburban school districts for whom the main issue is local control. These districts want Uncle Sam to butt out of the educational system and leave schools, teachers and administrators to run things as they see fit.

With critics on the right and the left, it's no wonder that NCLB is in trouble, at least in its current form. By current form, I mean with teeth, brains and a heartbeat.

Democrats don't have the guts to kill the law outright because they don't want to advertise to voters that they're the party that rolled back education reform. So they'll have to settle for watering down the law and making it easier for schools to hide how poorly they're doing by burying low-performing students under mounds of loopholes and a lack of transparency.

Luckily, NCLB has a ferocious defender in the form of U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. As someone who is obviously committed to the law and to preserving its intent, Spellings isn't afraid to square off against powerful opponents of NCLB such as Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

When Miller joined last month with Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, the committee's ranking Republican, to put together a “discussion draft” of changes they'd like to see made to NCLB, Spellings took a look at what they had in mind and then – on Sept. 5 – fired off a letter of her own laying out her concerns with what they had in mind. Among them: that the proposed changes would make it harder to disseminate information about how students were doing while making it easier for low-performing schools to avoid having to make improvements and offer options to students and parents. Letting schools off the hook in this way would, Spellings wrote, undermine a “bright-line principle of NCLB” and cripple the law.

Which, of course, would be fine with those who want to return to the old status quo. For the good of our children and the future they will visit upon us, let's hope that Spellings can stop them. If she can't, and No Child Left Behind is dismantled, we'll all pay the price – and for many years to come.

Navarrette can be reached via e-mail at

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