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Guest Column: On school accountability, reauthorize don’t neutralize

Twelve years ago, in an act of bipartisanship that now seems impossible to imagine, the Senate and House passed historic legislation reforming American education. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill was championed by President George W. Bush and supported by a nine-to-one ratio, including votes from Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the late Ted Kennedy, as well as Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. NCLB was the latest iteration of a national commitment to provide a better education for our nation’s children.

NCLB was transformative for schools and life-changing for students, particularly poor and minority students, whose achievement increased. It set national goals for America’s schools. It required states to test students’ knowledge of reading and math annually, and expected that all students would be at grade level in these subjects by 2014. And, when schools didn’t make enough progress towards meeting that ambitious goal, there were funding changes and opportunities for students to get immediate help.

NCLB marked the beginning of a new era of accountability in American education. It was an ambitious attempt to jumpstart student achievement within a global economy, and much needed given decades of stagnant achievement.

NCLB is also not perfect - no legislation ever is. There is clear interest in updating the law. Three different proposals for new legislation are under discussion in the House and Senate. And, 39 states and DC have designed new systems by receiving waivers from the Education Department. These actions could be promising developments. Instead, the actions are jeopardizing and potentially neutralizing the foundational principles of accountability.

These waiver-based systems exempt public schools from accountability standards that took decades to establish. Never before has such an important piece of legislation, with such broad and deep bipartisan backing, been so swiftly dismantled. If this trend isn’t redirected, our public education system could suffer an unnecessary setback in the effort to improve student performance.

It’s no secret that America’s students lag far behind those of many other developed nations. The George W. Bush Institute recently released a “Global Report Card” providing a district-by-district account of how American students stack up against their counterparts abroad. The results show just how far we need to go.

Just take Portland in Oregon, a state that received a waiver. Portland has an international mathematics score of 47 percent. That means that more than half the students in the international group perform better than the average Portland student. If you limit that comparison to Portland’s closest international competitor, the Canadians do even better.

These poor results were corroborated in two reports released in December by the National Center for Education Statistics. According to those studies, U.S. students ranked well below countries like Singapore in science. Countries such as Russia and Hong Kong, meanwhile, bested us in eighth-grade reading.

Oddly, as our international performance stagnates with some schools failing to live up to the goals set by NCLB, the response by the federal government and some states has been to lower expectations and lessen accountability.

Each state receiving a waiver or hoping for a more relaxed accountability system in a waiver or new law still has students - more than a few - who cannot read as well as their peers and struggle to master math.

The negative impact wrought by waivers can’t be overstated. A dangerous precedent is being set: if you can’t live up to agreed-upon standards, you get a pass. And, while most congressional watchers do not expect the current proposals to make it to the President’s desk, some proposals focus on the wrong issues - control instead of achievement, minutia instead of high expectations. How can meaningful education reform ever take hold if teachers and administrators don’t believe meaningful federal policies will actually be enforced?

In this current environment, there are foreboding signs. Eleven states are not meeting the most basic graduation rate reporting requirements, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

We have examples of states dramatically relaxing educational standards in response to the waiver opportunity. In Wisconsin, for instance, a mere 50 percent of students will be required to read at grade level by 2017.

Lawmakers should act and move to improve NCLB. Recognizing its flaws and acting to rectify them is a far more responsible course of action than nullifying the policy’s most crucial components and putting our children at greater risk.

Preserving a strong system of comprehensive accountability in American schools is a national imperative.

The global economy grows fiercer by the day. Our students need to be equipped with the high quality education they’ll need to land the jobs of the future. Lowering expectations, waiving expectations, and fighting for control takes this country back to the days before accountability. Allowing schools and educators to continue to fail to meet even basic achievement expectations is not what has made this country great and is not the pathway to a better future.

Our students deserve better.

(Kerri Briggs is Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute.)

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