Some NCLB reform ideas are good

Improving public schools isn’t rocket science. It’s harder and more complicated than that.

So it’s no wonder that Congress has been arguing since 2007 about how to “fix” the No Child Left Behind law, which in 2001 mandated that states set academic standards, give tests to see if students are meeting them, and impose consequences for schools that don’t improve test scores over time. The law also required that schools publish test results in a way that shows how students of color, low-income students, immigrants and students with disabilities were scoring.

Some states — Washington included — were already doing many of those things. But NCLB added a thick layer of federal accountability and the kind of byzantine complexity that only Congress can create. Now both the Senate and the House promise to lighten up, simplify the law, and return a measure of control to states for the standards they set, the tests they give and the actions they take when a school is persistently failing to improve student achievement.

The proposed rewrites also remove federal requirements to include student test scores as a part of evaluating teachers’ performance.

The advent of statewide academic standards, tests to see if students meet them, and public reporting of test results was intended to shake up a sclerotic school system that had operated for decades with virtually no accountability for achieving results. It was a system where if kids just showed up for 12 years, they were likely to be given a high school diploma, even if they couldn’t read and write well enough to complete a job application.

This also was a system that was largely designed to serve middle-class white kids whose learning style was compatible with the traditional culture of public school classrooms. As public schools became more diverse, a larger and larger share of students were dropping out or graduating without real skills because public schools were alien to their learning styles and cultures.

NCLB didn’t fix those problems, but it certainly did focus attention on them, and led to sustained improvement efforts. It made equity in public education a central part of the conversation about how to prepare all American students — regardless of family income or cultural background — for success in the 21st century. Clearly, continuing this effort is critical to our nation’s future.

Now both the Senate and the House are debating measures to rework NCLB.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate committee that drafted a rewrite of the law, has effectively championed a reasoned, bipartisan approach that preserves the core idea of NCLB, which is that schools should be accountable for educating all students and for improving over time.

It also includes a new provision that requires local schools and districts to report how much money per student is spent at each school. This is a policy innovation that can shine a very bright light on the inequities in the way schools are financed; it could lead to significant progress in equalizing school funding. It’s a bold new way to hold state legislatures accountable for school finance systems.

In the House, the Republican majority, pushed by its most conservative members, has passed a more partisan rewrite of NCLB. It radically reduces the federal role in public education. It lets states set policies that could let families use public school funding to put their kids in private schools. That’s a terrible idea that would harm efforts to improve public education.

We commend Sen. Murray and Republican committee Chairmain Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who together crafted the Senate version of the new law, called the Every Child Achieves Act. It is a big improvement over NCLB. In the negotiations to come to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions, we hope that Murray and her colleagues prevail.