The pendulum of American public education policy is swinging back, away from the stiff reform agenda of the past decade and a half. And the reformers themselves bear a share of the responsibility for the backlash. The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2001, will no doubt be remembered as one of the worst-constructed laws of the century. Instead of holding schools accountable by carefully measuring their improvement and creating mechanisms for change, it measured how many students had reached an arbitrary bar called academic "proficiency," which left many disadvantaged schools looking bad even when they were improving, and made many affluent schools look good even when their students stayed at about the same level.
The reform movement kicked into gear by the act scapegoated teachers and made teaching a less attractive career, just when the nation needed to attract more bright college students to the teaching profession. And it overemphasized high-stakes standardized testing in just two subjects, so that instruction and curriculum were narrowed to an unacceptable degree. Doing well on the largely fill-in-the-bubble tests was all that mattered.
Congress is finally near agreement on the rewrite of No Child Left Behind, which is now in conference committee. The anticipated new version would continue to require annual testing from third through eights grade, and once more in high school. But states would be left to set standards and to determine how to intervene at schools where students weren't achieving, as long as they at least took action to improve schools in the bottom 5% of their ratings and high schools where less than two-thirds of students were graduating. Under current law, schools failing to meet the standards face the possibility of mass firings, takeover by a charter school or, in California, "parent trigger" petitions.
The rewrite would also remove the federal government's power to pressure states to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, as the Obama administration has done. In fact, there might be no real consequences for schools where relatively few students take the test, which could give districts a perverse incentive to keep low achievers from bring counted.
In the eyes of some groups that decry the testing-and-accountability movement, this doesn't go far enough. Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing, they say, and return to a period when teachers taught without worrying about what test scores said.
Somewhere between rigid, punitive rules and the pre-accountability era is a sweet spot of reason that this nation has failed to reach. Standardized testing has a valid place in education, though it was endowed with too much importance as the only measure of a school's worth. Testing shows the sometimes yawning gaps between what schools say their students have learned and what they actually know. In particular, No Child Left Behind made the nation aware, as never before, of just how poorly students of color or with low incomes were faring.
Had it not been for the federal law, these students probably would have continued to be largely ignored. The "waltz of the lemons" would have played on as administrators transferred problematic teachers to schools in poor neighborhoods. It's less likely that Gov. Jerry Brown's new funding formula for schools, which directs the most money to the most disadvantaged students, would have come into existence. High schools in low-income areas of the city would still be devoid of the courses required to apply to a four-year college.
Cautious attempts to correct these abuses two decades ago were no match for indifference, inertia and the formidable political power of teachers' unions. Frustration led to the era of swifter reforms, some of which were helpful, such as charter schools and mandates that schools offer adequate courses. And some of them weren't, such as making a too-swift switch to the Common Core curriculum standards and creating unrealistic expectations for student achievement — along with harsh consequences for failing to meet them.
The solution working its way through Congress, though more reasonable than No Child Left Behind, threatens to leave many poor and minority students in schools that middle-class parents would never accept for their children. At minimum, the bottom 20% of schools in California and other states with comparatively poor student achievement need to take concrete steps toward improvement; the looming federal compromise would require intervention only at the lowest-performing 5%. That's unacceptable. And is this country honestly ready to allow high schools to continue graduating a mere 67% or 70% of their students, with no sense of public outrage?
The situation could end up worse in California, where ongoing attempts to reshape or replace the Academic Performance Index — those familiar annual school scores ranging from 200 to 1,000 — might result in no overall rating for individual schools. The idea was to provide a more rounded measurement of how schools were doing instead of solely test scores, which is laudable, but early indications are that the state might end up dumping out a hodgepodge of data for each school, with no overall sense of student performance. How will the state help its neediest schools if it can't even identify them?
The job of improving outcomes for disadvantaged students is hard, hard work. Unlike what many school reformers wanted to believe, there are no silver bullets, and progress is incremental. New ideas need to be tested before they end up being just another disappointment. Schools need helpful intervention more than punishment and disparagement. And though schools can and must do better, they can't make this happen all on their own. Students need secure housing, calm neighborhoods, access to adequate medical care and quiet spaces for doing their homework, among other things.
But unlike what many opponents of the reform movement have advocated, schools still must be held accountable. Progress has to be measurable. Though schools need more resources, money alone is not the answer; there are plenty of low-performing schools in such high-spending states as New York as well as in low-spending states like California. And just because testing offers an admittedly limited picture of a school's overall effort, that doesn't mean it is without value or that schools shouldn't have to raise their scores as part of an overall improvement effort. Government can't beat schools into compliance, but neither can we afford to dismiss the accountability effort simply because it's hard and continues to reveal uncomfortable truths about the achievement gap.