Getting rid of the 'Washington stick'

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011

Before we get into why the Obama administration is making a mistake with its No Child Left Behind revisions, let’s get this out of the way upfront: Congress should rework the law. Almost a decade after its passage, No Child could use some freshening. It especially should give schools more credit for passing a substantial number of students, even if some groups are failing.

But the administration’s suggestions put at risk many disadvantaged kids. Barack Obama had been a fresh Democratic voice on education. Now, he and his team are verging on consigning kids in so-so public schools to mediocrity.

I’m talking here about their proposal to remove the “Washington stick” to prod so-so schools. Under No Child, Washington requires those schools — as well as the flat-out failing ones — to create an improvement plan. If they don’t progress, they face federal sanctions.

The administration still would require an improvement plan and the possibility of federal sanctions for the 5 percent of schools that the law regards as failing campuses. But this would end for mediocre schools, where most disadvantaged students attend.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan discussed this shift in a recent telephone interview. Our exchange went like this:

Me: Who would be responsible for intervening with mediocre schools?

Duncan: “It depends upon their level. If you see huge gaps, they will be caught in our accountability system. We will look to see if schools are moving. If they aren’t, they fall to the federal government.”

Me: But what about campuses that are just so-so, that are not high-performing or low-performing?

Duncan: “States and local districts will have responsibility for them. We want states, districts and parents stepping up. I’m looking to them to provide support.”

In theory, letting states and districts decide about intervening may make sense. And it certainly will appeal to states-righters.

But a primary reason No Child came about, why civil rights groups especially backed the law, was that many districts didn’t expect enough from their kids. Year after sad year, students went from blah school to blah school. And minority kids fell farther behind white kids, in what’s known as the “achievement gap.”

Then came No Child, which insisted Washington track kids in every ZIP code so those in mediocre schools, as well as poor ones, wouldn’t be left behind. The law sought to ensure every kid could attend a good school through requiring campuses to make “adequate yearly progress.” If they don’t, they need a plan.

No Child hasn’t worked perfectly, but data show students have progressed since accountability became the norm. Disadvantaged students, in particular, have improved on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Writing recently on the National Journal’s website, Sandy Kress, the Austin, Texas, attorney who worked with George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy in crafting No Child, pointed to these NAEP results:

“In the 2000s, reading scores for 9-year-old blacks have gone up an astonishing 21 points; they’ve gone up 14 points for Hispanics.

“In the 2000s, after a decade of stagnation, math scores for 9-year-old blacks have gone up 13 points; they’ve gone up 21 points for Hispanics.

“In the 2000s, after a decade of stagnation, math scores for 13-year-old blacks have gone up 11 points; they’ve gone up 9 points for Hispanics.

“(Sadly, eighth-grade reading remains stuck decade to decade for all students, a challenge we must all take on.)”

Indeed, we still have struggling schools. That’s why Obama’s absolutely right to keep the Washington stick for the 5 percent of failing schools.

But without Washington prodding the merely not-good schools, kids from poor homes could get stuck in mediocrity from kindergarten through high school.

Which leads to this question: When are the civil rights groups that backed No Child going to speak up again for those kids, who stand to lose the most if these changes take place?

• McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

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