Friday, September 16, 2011

Leave 'No Child Left Behind' Behind

Twelve years ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush made public education reform a central theme of his campaign. American students were not keeping up with their global counterparts, and the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better off peers was not getting any better. Mr. Bush thought it was time to do something drastic to overcome the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, as he called it.
That something drastic became “No Child Left Behind”, the largest, most comprehensive federal overhaul of education we have ever seen. For the first time, the federal government established education standards that every student had to master in order to graduate. Schools that repeatedly missed the mark risked losing students to better-performing schools or being completely reorganized and taken over by state government.

Despite my misgivings about federal involvement in k-12 education in general, I was a huge fan of the idea of No Child Left Behind when it was first implemented. Like many others, I was deeply disappointed with the overall performance of the education system in America and fed up with the lame excuses from those who defended the status quo. I was shocked that schools were churning out students as “graduates” with very little data to prove they’d mastered their material. Educators talked about how well they knew their students in the classroom, but in fact, we knew very little about our students at all. How could we effectively reach every student unless we dropped our assumptions about who they were and how they learned?
So we began testing. We began assessing. We compiled data. We measured progress.
Ten years later, a professional field that had operated almost entirely without numbers is now swimming in data. Entire companies have been developed to generate, compile, track and analyze all the data points we gather. We have demographics, psychographics, learning styles, rates of progress, cohort comparisons, and a host of other data points that educators, administrators, board members and regulators can use to measure the success or failure of a school system, a curriculum, a teacher, a student population.
Now we need to breathe.
School districts all over the country have been frantically trying to analyze all their data, compare it to federal and state standards and come up with improvement plans where necessary to avoid the most onerous penalties of No Child Left Behind, all in an environment of continually changing standards and requirements. If the federal government really wants to help improve education at this point, the best thing it can do is… nothing. Freeze No Child Left Behind for two years. We need sufficient time for data and people to work together all the way up and down the educational food chain to determine best practices and make well-planned adjustments to our educational vision that will serve students well into the future. We will not achieve good results by trying to accomplish this on the fly using staff who feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their collective heads every day. No Child Left Behind has been an enormous catalyst for transforming education in America. Freezing it for the purpose of properly finishing its task can be an equally significant contribution to our children’s futures.