Before everyone in Washington rushes out to slay No Child Left Behind, let's be clear what the guiding principles of the 2001 law are:
In return for a substantial hike in funds to help schools serve low-income students, states must measure how all their schools are doing, based on the state's education standards.
Schools are expected to show progress each year on student test scores. By the year 2014, all children are to be proficient in reading and math.
If schools consistently fail to show adequate progress year over year, the feds and states can intervene. The most dramatic sanction would be to close schools. In other cases, struggling campuses would have access to substantial funds for tutoring. In some situations, students could transfer to another public school.
These are the essential parts of No Child, which admittedly has a bad brand. But do we really want to ditch these fundamentals?
Data from a recent Harvard Journal on Legislation report shows substantial increases in reading and math scores for some age groups of blacks and Hispanics since states started measuring their schools and holding them accountable. For example, 9-year-old blacks and Latinos have shown essentially a one-year-or-more gain in reading and math from 1999-2008.
I'm making these arguments again because the Obama administration announced Friday that it wants to give states a way out from No Child's requirements.
Yes, the administration wants to continue testing kids. That's good. But to what end? After all, the president would let each state determine how it would use the data each year to assess its students.
The White House also is ending No Child's requirement that every child be proficient in reading and math by 2014. It instead wants them college-ready.
College readiness is important, but how will states define that term? How will we know if kids are getting there? What happens if they don't? How will we know if students are really ready for college if states aren't actually using a standard measure? Obama's proposal leaves all that vague.
Also, why give states a waiver to decide if they want to use the tutoring requirements under No Child? Don't we want kids who are struggling to be guaranteed access to help? Likewise, why get rid of the federal requirement that lets students transfer out of a consistently failing school? Does the administration, which would let states decide whether to provide that option, think it's OK to leave kids in those schools?
Yes, there are ways to improve the law. For example, the administration is right that, if a school shows progress with one set of students, but not another, those differences should be factored into the campus assessment. The White House also is correct that states should use classroom data to help evaluate teachers. Classroom observations shouldn't be the only way to do the assessments.
But the real headline here is discouraging: The White House is lessening the federal government's requirements for public schools. In this age, when everyone's mad at government, that's likely to be popular.
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Let's remember, though, why the feds stepped up their involvement — because, just as the legislation's name suggests — students nationwide were tragically being left behind.
Do we really want to return to that era, where some kids have access to good schools, but students in other states don't? Doesn't the federal government have a stake in trying to give all children a shot at a better school, much like it does in creating access for all of us to clean air or clean water?
Yes it does. Which is why No Child needs amending, not ending.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.