More Children Left Behind

Who's accountable for their school?

Photographer: Robert Benson/Getty Images for Knowledge Universe

No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that conservatives and liberals both love to hate, is broken. Rather than repair it, however, Congress is preparing to remove its most important feature: the accountability requirements it imposes on states to ensure that schools meet the needs of struggling students. President Barack Obama should make it clear that he will veto any bill that thus limits the federal government's power to spur national progress on education. 

The existing law, adopted in 2002 with bipartisan support, was a response to states' collective failure to hold schools accountable for their students' performance. It required states to develop annual reading and math tests for children in grades 3-8, as well as a test for high school students. Schools that failed to make steady progress had to put together plans for improvement, provide free tutoring and give students the chance to transfer to better schools. Continued failure over several years could result in a school being closed, taken over by the state or converted to an independently run charter school. 

The law was a necessary corrective to the country's long period of education stagnation. It helped produce significant gains in both reading and math, and narrowed the racial achievement gap. But it contained two major flaws: It allowed states to define student success however they liked. And it set a goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 -- a level of perfection that schools could attain only by dumbing down standards. Rather than raise the bar, many states lowered it -- faking progress. 

Congress could easily correct these flaws. Simply establish a national baseline for student performance, and set realistic goals for student progress. But lawmakers are doing the opposite. Bills in both the House and the Senate would allow states to create their own Lake Wobegons, where all students are above average -- and the federal Department of Education would no longer have the authority to challenge them. 

The House bill is worse than the Senate's, because it waters down testing requirements. But both would enable elected officials to hide failing schools, often in poor neighborhoods, from parents and voters. And they would eliminate the requirement, essential to classroom-level accountability, that student achievement be a factor in teacher evaluations. The bills would even limit the Education Department's ability to offer states incentives to adopt strategies that have proved effective -- as the Obama administration's Race to the Top program has done. 

Senators will have a chance to vote for amendments that would strengthen accountability requirements, mitigating the damage Congress is preparing to inflict on U.S. schools. 

President Obama has a strong record on education, but he has been strangely quiet about Congress's plans to cripple this law. He should speak out for the country's need to protect all vulnerable students and bring changes to all failing schools. And if it comes to it, he should make sure this legislation ends with a veto. 

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