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Chairman George Miller of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor held a marathon, standing-room-only hearing in
NCLB was whisked through Congress during the brief post-9/11 period of bipartisan comity early in President Bush's first term, the signature (and only) legislative victory of the president's crusade for "compassionate conservatism" in domestic policy.
The law sought to force the nation's public schools to do better by students that public education had long underserved: students of color, those from disadvantaged families, English language learners, and students with disabilities. It ordered every state to draft statewide standards and tests in three subjects (reading, math, and science), report every school's performance for each student category, and hold educators accountable for their students' results—worthy steps that have spurred reforms in some places.
But in the main, the law hasn't worked anything like the way the White House and Congress planned.
Many states have sought to inflate their performance by lowering their student achievement standards or by employing a range of statistical sleights of hand. Weak tests have encouraged teachers to teach low-level skills. Art and music, already in scarce supply in public schools, have atrophied further. Strong students have gotten short shrift under the law, as have, ironically, the nation's weakest students. Good schools have been labeled bad. And fraud has plagued NCLB-mandated tutoring programs in some cities. Not exactly the best ways to ensure that no child is left behind.
In his "discussion draft" of NCLB reauthorization legislation, Miller, a California Democrat and one of Congress' keenest students of education policy, has sought to address such problems by promoting more sophisticated tests and school-rating systems, closing the law's performance-inflating loopholes, permitting states to measure a wider range of subjects, incentivizing schools to work hard on behalf of talented and less talented students alike, and focusing more resources and the toughest sanctions on the most troubled schools—without sacrificing the law's core statewide testing regimes or its shining-bright-light-in-dark-corners reporting of student achievement by subgroup.
But in the long run, the plan's most significant feature may be the incentives it gives states to craft new, tougher standards and tests pegged to national and international benchmarks. In doing so, the plan would move the nation's highly fragmented public education system one step closer to the sort of coherent, national system that has produced so many well-educated citizenries in Europe and
Many in the
Yet the Miller plan also holds out the risk of making NCLB's accountability system even more convoluted than it is now. As a way to make NCLB testing more useful to the nation's teachers but also in response to heavy lobbying by state education leaders, some of them eager to turn down the accountability burner that NCLB has placed under them, Miller's blueprint allows states to combine a wide range of new local tests with existing state tests in judging school performance. Ensuring the quality and integrity of a myriad of new local tests grafted onto statewide testing systems would be a daunting task—and likely beyond the ability of the U.S. Department of Education.
The fact that Miller's plan heads in two, opposite directions at the same time reflects the fact that we are at an important crossroads in education policymaking in the
We have been moving for nearly two decades toward more centralized standards-setting in public education, out of recognition that the notion of local standards has been an oxymoron in too many parts of the public education system. But our abiding federalist traditions and the extraordinary political power embodied in the public education system (education is the single largest line in every state and local budget in the country), pulls powerfully against the logic of even a voluntary national system of educational standards and tests. The result is the chaos of NCLB and the competing instincts in the Miller plan.
The ultimate direction of public education is clear: We are moving toward a more nationalized system because we can't afford not to when we need much more from public schools than they have traditionally given us, when more and more jobs depend on workers using their heads rather than their hands. And we would be far better off if we sought to reach that destination sooner rather than later, as the challenges posed by NCLB and Miller's well-intentioned efforts to improve the law suggest.
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