Some liberals are defending Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, convinced it’s the only way to focus attention on the achievement gap. In the LA Times, Ronald Brownstein hits Kerry for flip-flopping on the law. Once Kerry called for accountability in education; now he’s defending the status quo.
Kerry and other skeptics point to some legitimate problems in No Child Left Behind. But many education reformers worry that the changes he’s demanding will do more to hide problems in the schools than to fix them. Put another way: His proposed revisions mostly favor the adults working in the school system over students and their parents.
Kerry’s most important proposal would change the way the law assesses schools. Now, schools must test every student in reading and math annually from third through eighth grade. Schools must show improvement every year for every group of students — not just white or middle-class kids, but minority and low-income children as well. Schools that don’t meet that standard are labeled as needing improvement, which triggers an escalating series of reforms.
. . . Kerry’s clear intent is to loosen the standard so that fewer schools are identified as needing improvement, even if student test scores fail to rise. It’s easy to see why teachers and administrators worried about their public image like that idea. It’s more difficult to see how it helps parents or children.
It’s a myth that “the law punishes schools designated as needing improvement,” writes Brownstein.
In fact, schools face no changes until they have failed to raise student performance for at least two consecutive years. Even then, they are only required to develop an improvement plan and, more important, to allow parents to transfer their children to other public schools. If the school fails to improve student performance for three consecutive years, it must provide low-income parents stipends to obtain extra tutoring for their kids, often from respected providers like Sylvan Learning Center.
In other words, when students don’t make progress, the law initially demands that schools offer parents more options — the chance to switch schools or receive extra tutoring. “These are not things that parents will tell you are punitive — they are benefits,” said Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust, a group that advocates for low-income children.
Kerry is trying to repackage himself as a fiscal conservative, so he’s “scaled back” two expensive proposals he pushed during the primaries: pre-school and free college tuition in exchange for community service.
Meanwhile, President Bush is adding education proposals, including a larger Pell grant for low-income students who study math or science in college. It would be paid for by limiting Pell grants for four-year college programs to eight years of study and those for two-year community colleges to four.