Obama Retreats on Education Reform

March 17, 2010

In a week dominated by health care, President Barack Obama released a set of education proposals that break with ideals once articulated by Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy's view was that accountability is essential to educating every child. He expressed this view in 1965, while supporting an education reform initiative, saying "I do not think money in and of itself is necessarily the answer" to educational excellence. Instead, he hailed "good faith . . . effort to hold educators responsive to their constituencies and to make educational achievement the touchstone of success."

But rather than raising standards, the Obama administration is now proposing to gut No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) accountability framework. Enacted in 2002, NCLB requires that every school be held responsible for student achievement. Under the new proposal, up to 90% of schools can escape responsibility. Only 5% of the lowest-performing schools will be required to take action to raise poor test scores. And another 5% will be given a vague "warning" to shape up, but it is not yet clear what will happen if they don't.

Mr. Obama would judge schools not by whether they were meeting reading and math standards, but primarily by a more amorphous standard: whether they are producing "college-ready and career-ready" students. Abandoning current goals for students to reach grade level performance and promising that instead kids will be made "college-ready" is like promising someone they'll be able to run the marathon without first determining if they can run a mile.

Communities already know local graduation rates and, in most instances, how many students go on to college. But these aren't effective metrics for fixing failing schools because by the time a student drops out of high school it is nearly too late to provide him with a quality education. The value of the current accountability regime is that it pinpoints students at risk early in the process.

Teachers unions, which are deeply opposed to measurements and accountability, condemn NCLB for forcing schools to "teach to the test." But what's wrong with measuring a child's ability to learn and gauge whether they have reading and math skills appropriate to their age? "Teaching to the test" means providing students with the underlying skills they need to pass any test. The same is true, by the way, when it comes to the SAT or ACT.

Researchers are finding that standardized tests can help us spot good teachers who are capable of raising the performance of their charges. Why revoke a vital data-driven tool that allows communities to measure teacher performance and link it to student progress?

Testing is also important because it builds political pressure for reform. When presented with test data showing that schools are failing, parents demand change.

This has happened in Boston where Democratic Mayor Thomas M. Menino now favors charter schools because test scores revealed 12 of his city's schools failed to meet state standards or even show progress towards reaching them. The same is also true in Petersburg, Va., where students scored so low in state tests in 2008 that only one of the city's seven public schools met accreditation standards. They improved somewhat last year and will likely do better in the coming years. Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor last year while promising to hire turnaround specialists for the city's schools.

What do the students in Petersburg and Boston have in common? They are mostly black and many are poor. A tough accountability regime is vital to creating better educational opportunities for them.

Mr. Obama is also proposing to weaken school choice provisions in NCLB. For example, under his plan students in failing schools lose important school choice options as well as tutoring and other supplementary services. Because their schools are failing to meet state standards today, six million students are eligible to transfer to other public schools and over four million can access free tutoring.

Parents empowered with options are a powerful force for change and improvement, even if the amount of money for supplemental services is modest and parents can move their children only to another public school that will accept them.

Education reform is one of the rare opportunities for bipartisan cooperation that the Obama White House has not already squandered. It's an area where even this administration has admitted that it was left a solid, generally effective set of reforms.

It would be disappointing if Mr. Obama weakened two essential planks of school reform. For America's students, it would be downright harmful.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, March 17, 2010.

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