Action last week by Congress to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law was a win for U.S. students. Co-engineered by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., it was an equally big win for common sense and political pragmatism in Washington, D.C.
The compromise preserves some core elements of the original bipartisan education reform in 2002 that is commonly identified with President George W. Bush. It requires improvements by the worst-performing schools and continues requirements for yearly testing of students in reading and math during grades three through eight, as well as once during high school.
But it defines school success by other measures than test scores, including graduation rates and the availability of advanced coursework.
President Barack Obama signed the long overdue rewrite on Thursday. It ends some unfortunate outcomes of NCLB, which placed a “failing” label on far too many schools.
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In Washington, which lacked a waiver from NCLB that many other states secured by using student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, as many as 88 percent of schools were misleadingly labeled as failing. Such a meaningless label helps obscure the awful failures of the worst schools.
Enormous credit for the bipartisan revision of federal education law goes appropriately to Murray, our state’s senior senator and former preschool teacher, and to Alexander, a former governor and U.S. education secretary who was prime sponsor of the legislation. Together they defied the forces of political gravity in our overly partisan Congress and showed that reasonable minds can compromise and make progress.
All 10 of Washington’s House members and both senators voted in favor of S. 1177. The bill also drew praise from state schools superintendent Randy Dorn and Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats. Dorn said a key is that goals and expectations for students be believable.
Also offering support was the Washington Education Association, which had fought the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, and Republican Sen. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup, who has been on the other side of WEA in some school accountability debates at the Legislature.
A major, valid reason Bush’s NCLB reform had support more than a decade ago was that it recognized our nation’s schools have been failing children – especially low-income, minority, special education, and immigrant students learning English. A central goal of NCLB was to ensure that schools were accountable for every child’s educational success.
The newly renamed Every Student Succeeds Act does not abandon that commitment as some earlier proposals might have.
A central problem in public education, which ideally serves as a social and economic equalizer in our society, is that educational opportunities are not equal and success is too often tied to a student’s family income – or to the adequacy of the local community’s tax base. That means real educational opportunities are not delivered equally to all students.
Thanks to Murray, additional federal funds will become available to aid states’ efforts in early childhood education, which is especially critical for young children raised in disadvantaged circumstances.
This latest reform – which is a second major updates of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – must ultimately must be judged by results over time. But its promise should far outweigh any concerns.