Early in President Bush’s first term, Congress rushed to pass landmark education legislation dubbed No Child Left Behind. It had strong bi-partisan support and was generally viewed as a necessary step to improve the quality of public education.
In the intervening years, a number of people who supported the legislation have started having serious second thoughts. First, there is the issue of adequate funding to implement the bill. President Bush never sought full funding for the legislation in any of his budgets submitted to Congress.
Equally important is the issue of whether or not the grade level performance standards (measured by standardized tests) are either realistic or fair to our nation’s hard pressed public school system. Under the legislation, elementary school students are evaluated each year in math and reading. Performance targets are set by year, with the requirement that 100 percent of all students in each school meet performance standards by the year 2014.
While we clearly want elementary students to improve their math and reading skills, the legislation may be unrealistic in expecting that every single student achieve at grade level in every single school. Students have differing abilities and some may never reach grade level. Is an otherwise excellent school to be condemned as a failure if a few students cannot pass a standardized test?
It is equally unfair that many outstanding schools are faced with the inflexible requirement that each subgroup within a school must meet the specified standard each year between now and 2014. Subgroups (minimum numbers for which are determined on the state level and can in some instances be quite small) include the following: African-American, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, English Language Learners (ELI), Socio-Economic Status, Hispanic, Special Education and White.
A school can be truly outstanding with the total number of students significantly exceeding the number required for a passing score on the tests in any given year leading up to 2014 and still be subject to newspaper mention that it didn’t meet the standards of No Child Left Behind because one or more subgroups did not have enough students passing the test in either math or reading. And, to make matters worse, the same low performing students can belong to multiple subgroups and make the school’s performance appear even worse.
For example, in the state of Kansas, the target for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the 2005-2006 school year was that 63.4 percent of students must pass the reading test 60.1 percent of students must pass the math test. A school as a whole could greatly exceed both benchmarks and yet have its name in the paper as not meeting No Child Left Behind standards because one or more subgroups did not qualify in either math or reading.
Finding and retaining quality public school teachers is not an easy task in today’s environment. Teachers and administrators face discipline and instructional problems that didn’t exist when I went to elementary school. The breakdown of the family unit (high divorce rate, large number of single parent families) means that teachers and principals must be part social worker, part substitute parent. Their job is hard enough without the federal government crafting legislation that unfairly calls into question their performance.
This is particularly true when the teaching and administrative staff of a school are doing a remarkable job in educating a large and diverse student body. They should be acclaimed rather than subject to question by the press simply because a relatively small number of students can’t pass a standardized test.
Congress soon will be reviewing No Child Left Behind. Hopefully, members of the House and Senate will take the time to ask some probing questions about the implementation of the law rather than just voting for a slogan that sounds good.
It is imperative that we get public education right in this country. It is estimated that 90 percent of all school age children attend public schools. The success of our nation depends on a well-educated populace. We will not be competitive with the rest of the world unless we have an educated workforce that can continue to increase productivity to compensate for the fact that most of our competitors around the world pay lower wages to their workers.
There are two parts to the education equation: improving the quality of instruction and encouraging talented young people to pursue education as a career. Undermining school morale by imposing unrealistic and unfairly implemented standards will make it difficult to achieve the latter.
Next time Congress passes legislation to leave no child behind, let’s make sure that we don’t run off the talented people we need to make it work. This is too important to not do it right.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.