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The debate on No Child Left Behind begins in earnest this week, and the outcome will be determined by one fundamental question: Does this country want to make schools better - or just make schools look better? If Congress is true to the noble idea that all children, no matter their races, family incomes or circumstances, can learn to read and do math, it must reject suggestions that make a charade of standards and accountability.
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A draft bill reauthorizing President Bush's signature education initiative will be the subject of a hearing Monday by the House education committee. Its chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is an architect of the 5 ½-year-old law and an astute champion of good schools, and there is much that is admirable in the draft. Foremost is making sure that needy schools get their rightful share of state and local funds and of quality teachers. Performance pay for teachers is endorsed, a brave stand considering the opposition of the politically powerful National Education Association. Miller, with insights into how schools scam the law's requirements, would plug loopholes that let schools enhance their records through statistical sleights of hand and by excluding hundreds of thousands of minority and special education students from measurement.
At the same time, though, Miller would open the door to even larger end runs around accountability. His draft would allow states to use measures besides math and reading tests to judge school performance. A school unable to show student proficiency in math and reading would be allowed to trot out other tests where children did better or could get credit for graduation rates or Advanced Placement tests. Not only does this diminish the central importance of math and reading as fundamental subjects to be mastered, it also lets schools define their success by masking the failure of some of their students. Equally troubling is a provision that would allow some states to use differing local assessments. The public's stake in knowing how its schools are doing would be compromised by methods that are easily manipulated, hard to understand and impossible to use in comparing one school or district against another.
Miller argues that the recommendations are aimed at undoing some of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. No doubt he is right that some schools teach to the test and that some districts have starved their curricula of other subjects. But letting schools off the hook is not the answer. Nor is letting them go their own way. Instead of multiple measures, the discussion should be about national measures. Then, too, there needs to be a candid assessment of whether the laudable goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is having adverse effects. Is it driving states to lower the standards and take shortcuts? Would it be better to give schools more time so that they can aim higher and achieve more?
That there are enormous political pressures surrounding this debate is undeniable. Miller's prospects of getting any semblance of No Child Left Behind reauthorized involves both wooing of traditional Democratic constituencies and outreach to Republicans. Nonetheless, a political victory at the expense of policy won't be a win for any of the children who end up left behind.