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U.S. fiscal stability tied to education progress

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

This week, the No Child Left Behind Act celebrated its 11th year as the nation’s law on education policy. Sorry to say that in 2013 the law is no closer to meeting its primary goal of having 100 percent of America’s students proficient on standardized reading and math tests by 2014 – yes, that’s next year – than it was back in 2002.

In truth, NCLB isn’t even the law now for the District of Columbia and 34 states including North Carolina. Those areas have won Obama administration waivers from the law’s key edicts in exchange for boosting academic standards and instituting teacher and principal evaluation systems.

The administration announced the waivers in 2011 after Congress failed to reauthorize a revised education law in 2010. The law, which was supposed to be rewritten in 2007, has languished with members of Congress ideologically strident and predictably at loggerheads over what a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the actual name of the long-standing law) should say.

The NCLB act that Republican President George W. Bush pushed with bipartisan help and support, particularly from the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, was flawed. Though it had the right goals of boosting the academic performance of all students and demanding accountability from educators and others to achieve higher performance, the bill provided insufficient resources and controls to do so.

Indeed, the bill provided an illusion of “leaving no child behind” rather than concerted reforms to achieve the goal. States almost immediately devised schemes to get around the law’s imperative that schools meet new performance standards for students in all ethnic and socio-economic groups or be labeled as failing and possibly face losing some federal funds.

Louisiana and several other states set student proficiency standards low so most students could meet them. Other states such as Colorado deemed students proficient if they met only partial requirements. North Carolina initially decided it would deem only schools receiving Title I funds subject to the law’s requirements.

One of the biggest flaws – and I noted this in 2002 – was that though the bill required annual testing of students, it allowed each state to use its own tests. With tests varying widely in rigor from state to state, the results held little validity in assessing students’ actual proficiency. This was simply a sham from the start.

And all too predictably, the NCLB with its obsessive focus on tests helped foster a “teaching to the test” atmosphere that has made testing more the goal and test-taking the strategy than what must and should be the objective – student learning. After a decade of laser focus on tests, it is clear that hasn’t brought the kind of results U.S. students need to compete effectively today.

So, will this be the year the federal education law moves to a place of priority on Congress’ agenda, and gets revised and reauthorized? It should.

If members are truly concerned about fiscal policies necessary to get the country on the right path to reduce its debt, put people back to work and build a strong and sustainable economy, they cannot ignore the country’s education needs. A better educated and skilled workforce prepared to meet the challenges of a more technologically advanced and global society is critical to a thriving economy. Congress cannot effectively tackle one without thoughtfully addressing the other.

The Obama administration outlined its blueprint in 2010, and it has been the basis for how it grants waivers from NCLB. But members of Congress should also consider what some education experts are recommending. James Campbell, a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore, offered these steps recently:

• Provide adequate funding for the Common Core standards initiative developed by the nation’s governors and that 46 states have adopted. The standards are designed to better prepare students for college and careers. They aim to improve competitiveness in the international economy by pushing deeper understanding of subject matter and improved critical thinking and problem solving abilities. But “Common Core will put additional strain on already overstretched school budgets, especially in poorer neighborhoods where the new standards are most needed,” Campbell said. “If the nation is serious about upgrading our curriculum to compete on the world stage, we must find the dollars to make it work.”

• Make schools more diverse. Research shows that a child’s family life and the characteristics of his classmates have as much impact on student achievement as what happens in the classroom. A recent study on the Future of School Integration showed that low-income students are likely to learn more in a middle-income school where their peers have larger vocabularies, higher levels of engagement, and view education as a pathway to a greater goal. There’s a “growing movement to expand the number of schools where children learn in racially and economically mixed settings... With students of color making up almost half the U.S. school population today, new approaches to closing the achievement gap will take on added significance.”

The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit focused on policy research and analysis, chimes in with these suggestions: promote more uniform academic standards and teacher qualification requirements across states; set more appropriate improvement targets; broaden the measures of student learning beyond multiple-choice tests in reading and math to include more subjects and tests of higher-thinking and problem-solving skills; focus improvement efforts on all schools and continue to offer parental choice; and provide incentives for highly qualified teachers to teach in low-performing schools.

Some states have already demonstrated what works. In a recent Trends in International Math and Science Study, two states stood out in outperforming participating nations: Massachusetts scored higher than every nation besides Singapore in math and Minnesota trailed only Singapore and Taiwan in science. (North Carolina made a good showing too.) Both states have improved student learning by emphasizing critical thinking skills, elevating the teaching profession, providing high quality early learning, and linking educational interventions to cutting edge educational research.

Leaving no child behind is an admirable goal of the federal education law. It’s time to really work toward making the sentiment a reality.

Email:fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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