How to Fix No Child Left Behind
Time magazine has a cover story this coming week on the problems and promise of NCLB five years in. First the good news. A number of high-poverty, low-performing schools are indeed doing better on reading and math tests. When it becomes public knowledge that only 10% of kids at a school score at grade level on these tests, most people find that fairly embarassing -- and they do something about it.
The bad news is that sometimes the things they do are not exactly going to help America's competitiveness in the global economy. As Time points out, states can choose their own standards test, and some, such as Mississippi, have chosen to make the tests so easy that they're meaningless. A surprising number of schools simply cheat. Others adopt drill and kill approaches and get rid of all curriculum that doesn't appear on the tests (science, history, art, music, etc.)
And then, of interest to readers of this blog, there's the perception of neglect of kids who will definitely pass the standards tests. The opening anecdote of the Time article describes a school focusing on a batch of kids with borderline scores. Maybe they'll pass, maybe they won't, so the school throws time and resources at pushing them over the bar. But what about the kids who are already over the bar? I haven't been able to find a lot of stories of schools actually getting rid of gifted education because of NCLB, but certainly many people feel it's no longer a priority. The same criticism of NCLB, incidentally, can be made on the other end of the spectrum. A child who is reading four grades below his age level can improve to one grade below, but still may not pass the test. In the NCLB world, this improvement is meaningless.
One of the best proposed reforms is to put the focus on individual student growth. As Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings points out, the data bases necessary to achieve that would be complex. But the idea is that schools would need to show adequate yearly progress for individual students. A gifted child who wasn't learning would suddenly be a problem for the school (well, provided the test was hard enough-- a national set of standards might improve the picture).
It's anyone's guess how much NCLB will be reformed. I don't think it's a big priority in Congress right now, and given the small percentage of education funding the federal government provides, states may rebel over too much meddling. In general, acountability is a good thing, so I'm hoping NCLB can be done right. I'm not too optimistic it will be, though.