Remembering the Children in "No Child Left Behind"
Jon Kyl, August 16, 2004
In January 2002 President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act - the most sweeping reform of federal education policy in a generation. Despite having passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, the act has since come under heavy criticism on a variety of fronts, often from lawmakers who voted to support it.
Some of these complaints have highlighted legitimate problems and unintended consequences of the law, and the Department of Education has moved to address them. But much of the criticism is politically motivated. The debate over improving student achievement has been pushed aside. This loss of focus means that a chance to reform Americaís troubled public school system is in danger of being lost.
Before that happens, and as children across Arizona start gearing up to go back to school, itís worth taking a minute to revisit precisely what the law actually requires. At its core, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) simply calls for states, within 12 years, to bring their students in grades 3 through 8 to "proficient" levels in reading and math. Thatís not a particularly lofty goal. And 12 years is a long time. Which begs the question: If school districts arenít already devoting most of their budgets to this kind of utterly basic, foundational instruction, what are they spending their money on?
As the Washington Post has noted in an editorial, what really drives the education establishmentís hostility is that NCLB forces states to ensure that progress is made by all of their students - not just the Ďaverageí pupil - and to "pay them equal attention." For too many schools, this is a new way of doing things. The state of Virginia, for example, requires that 70 percent of students in a school reach proficiency for the school to be considered successful. Thatís fine for the 70 percent, but what about the others? Averaging of the student body can mask dismal scores among sub-groups, too often low-income or minority students. Raising standards for disadvantaged groups may not be easy, but the alternative is simply unacceptable. Itís not good enough for well-off kids to be proficient but disadvantaged students to be left behind.
At the same time, the stark accountability of test scores is likely to reveal that some schools thought to be of high quality by their communities are in fact overrated. Thatís a tough reality that must be dealt with, and NCLB provides funding and incentives to help. In fact, President Bushís 2005 budget would provide $568.2 million overall to help Arizona school systems implement NCLBís reforms, recognizing our explosive population growth, particularly among low-income families.
So much for what the NCLB does. Equally important is what it does not do. Nothing in the act dictates what methods or curricula schools must use, or tells states what they must test for, or even what the tests should look like. All of these matters are left to the discretion of state legislators and local educators, as they should be, because one-size-fits-all formulas from Washington never work.
NCLB addresses the critical need to ensure that America can compete successfully in the global economy. The 1999 Trends in International Math & Science Study found American students well behind their counterparts from Japan, Taiwan, Korea and many other economic competitors.
Consider the state of Michigan. A September 2000 study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that more than one-third of the stateís students leave high school without having mastered basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. The cost of this knowledge gap to the stateís employers alone (not including that borne by taxpayers funding remedial work by community colleges and other institutions) was an estimated half a billion dollars per year. And it wasnít just for teaching basic skills. Businesses must also use expensive technology in myriad ways to help unprepared employees and applicants. As the Mackinac study noted, "Some fast-food chains buy cash registers with pictures of the food items so that employees do not have to be able to read or remember the prices of the products."
That is a tragic reflection on the educational system of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. If the No Child Left Behind Act makes educators and communities honestly assess exactly how good their schools are - for all of their students - then an important goal will have been achieved
Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
TruthNews. All Rights Reserved.