Editorial Board

State-Based Education Reform Needs Common Standards: View

The Barack Obama administration has begun issuing long-awaited waivers giving states some flexibility in complying with the No Child Left Behind education law. But with the exception of politicians, educators and parents in the 11 states that have received them, nobody seems very pleased with the changes.

Advocates for the disadvantaged raise concerns that poor and minority children will be forgotten under the new regime, which will allow approved states to set their own benchmarks on school performance and improvement. Conservatives say the conditions attached are a new federal intrusion into states’ prerogatives. And Washington politicians of both parties claim that the executive branch has overstepped its bounds.

The good news is that all of these concerns are overstated. The bad news is that the waivers, issued by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, will do little to promote much-needed comprehensive reform in American public schools.

The goal of NCLB -- not actually a new law but an ambitious 2002 re-authorization of the Lyndon B. Johnson-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- was to use federal money as a carrot and sanctions as a stick to push states to set high standards for school improvement and establish concrete measures of student performance. By this yardstick, it has been a qualified success.

Law Needs Updating

Nonetheless, any legislation a decade old will show cracks in its foundations, and No Child Left Behind has more than its share. The one that led to the current turning point was a mandate that all U.S. children reach proficiency in math and language arts by 2014, a requirement that even the law’s authors must have realized was unachievable. They assumed Congress would move to amend and reauthorize the act well before that deadline. Congress didn’t. Duncan acted. And we don’t blame him, even if the move comes close to crossing the executive-legislative divide.

Despite all the hoopla, the waivers simply aren’t that big a change from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Rather, they continue the federal shift away from the old law’s emphasis on punishments, such as closing schools that fail to meet annual progress requirements, and toward the incentive-laden approach of the administration’s Race to the Top grant-making initiative.

When the administration announced its intent to issue waivers last summer, our greatest concern was that it not give states so much flexibility that standards would be watered down to the point of meaninglessness. We are relieved that the states (for the most part high achievers under NCLB) will still need to provide evidence of improvement based on “college-and-career-ready standards,” and that the Education Department made several of them revise their applications to provide greater detail on measures to ensure compliance. Rigor remains.

But a Band-Aid is not going to suffice. States and schools will remain in limbo until Congress passes an improved version of the education act aimed at consolidating the gains of the last decade.

Closing Achievement Gaps

There are many areas for improvement. For example, No Child Left Behind has encouraged teachers and administrators to worry less about nurturing high-achieving students than about meeting “adequate yearly progress” targets and getting as many students rated “proficient” as possible. The law has also proved highly arbitrary in punishing schools that failed to close achievement gaps between regular pupils and those in special education, or between native speakers of English and those learning it as a second language. Little has been done to shed light on why the achievement gap between girls and boys is widening, why many top students fail to maintain their elite performance and why many minority students fare poorly even at high-achieving suburban schools.

Given public sentiment and the Republican-controlled House, the centerpiece of any new law will probably be to grant states more freedom to become laboratories of reform. We have no problem with that, so long as they set rigorous benchmarks for student and school performance and let parents know what they are doing. The question is who will set those standards.

Conservatives are adamantly opposed to federally administered benchmarks, and many have promoted the Common Core State Standards initiative, a laudable project led largely by governors of the 45 states that have signed on to the effort. But the Common Core has its own flaws. Some early supporters complain that entrenched educational interests have dumbed down the standards.

A study by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a Massachusetts-based group that promotes free-market solutions, found that switching to Common Core would water down language benchmarks in Massachusetts and California, and that for algebra I and II and geometry, the content “shows low academic expectations for its definition of ‘college readiness.’ "

Battling Over Turf

Another concern is that that ideology and turf battles will stand in the way of what everyone wants: better schools. Obama’s budget, released last week, included a sensible measure to tie $5 billion in federal spending on teacher pay and tenure to performance instead of seniority. Republicans might have been expected to laud the new direction. Yet John Kline of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, criticized the White House for meddling in state and local affairs.

States can’t have it both ways. If they want the money made available by No Child Left Behind, they will have to accept a federal role in K-12 education. We applaud the initiative they are showing in taking the lead on education reform, and hope Congress begins debate, without delay, on two bills that Kline has presented. But without some baseline agreement on robust national standards, the U.S. risks falling further behind in global educational achievement.


    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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