The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
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There's a reason the federal No Child Left Behind Act is sometimes called the "No Public School Left" Act. The law takes an admirable aspiration - ensuring all students learn to a basic level of competency that enables them to function in society - and turns it into an inflexible demand, with harsh consequences for the schools that most need extra help to measure up.
Schools must get a passing grade in each of 33 categories. Low-income schools that don't pass all 33 categories for two or more years face financial and other sanctions. Other schools that fail to measure up are stuck with a stigma that can scare some families into choosing private schools.
The federal law ignores the reality that some students are easier to educate than others. Some schools serve students who show up for class ready to learn, coming from stable households that value and support their children's education. Other schools serve communities afflicted by poverty, crime or other social upheaval, such as mass immigration.
Schools are held accountable for the performance of students who may not even show up enough - or stick around long enough - to benefit from the education the school offers. A school may do a great job helping disadvantaged students catch up, but as long as student scores still fall short, the school's good work doesn't count in the federal evaluation.
Alaska is among the states that have tried to gain some flexibility in evaluating schools. State education leaders want the rating based not just on the absolute level of student test scores, but also on the growth in student performance over time.
For the first few years of No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration steadfastly rejected requests for that kind of flexibility. Lately, a few states have won federal OK for considering growth in student scores, but Alaska's bid was recently rejected.
Alaska faces an even bigger challenge meeting another mandate in the federal education law. All teachers are supposed to be "highly qualified" in the subjects they teach. Again, that's an admirable aspiration.
But Alaska has scores of tiny rural schools, accessible only by air or boat, with only a handful of teachers. Expecting each of those teachers to be "highly qualified" in multiple subjects is flatly unrealistic. Remote Alaska districts have enough trouble as it is recruiting teachers. Ironclad enforcement of this federal mandate will make it even harder to recruit teachers in the Bush.
No Child Left Behind will expire unless renewed by the new Congress that starts in January. With Democrats in control, there's new hope that an updated version of the law can include more realistic mandates.
"Next year, there's really an opportunity to make changes to No Child Left Behind," says Kevin Sweeney, press aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "The (Bush) administration was always dead set against changes." Mr. Sweeney identified two key areas for improving the law: the "growth" approach to evaluating students and the "highly qualified" teacher requirements.
He's right on both counts.
No Child Left Behind turns admirable aspirations into punitive mandates. With a modest amount of flexibility, a revised federal law can apply enough pressure to spur improvement without setting standards that are impossible to achieve.