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No Child Left Behind accountability
The conundrum of school reform is that you can't expect more accountability without funding, but you also can't add significant new funding without demanding accountability. As the Obama administration gears up to reveal its proposals for revamping the No Child Left Behind Act, it has sent confusing signals about which it will emphasize.
If the economic stimulus package is any indication, so far spending is winning out over accountability. Aside from $10-billion extra for impoverished schools under Title I -- a program that has never been found to improve student achievement -- the package added $3 billion for schools that are failing academically. In addition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gets a giant new pot of $5 billion to spend on raising standards and funding innovative programs -- money he is free to allocate as he chooses.
In a news conference last week, Duncan made all the right noises, saying money would go to states that develop comprehensive programs to boost standards and provide stronger assessments of children's academic progress. But Duncan has a lot of money to work with, and he will undoubtedly feel pressure to spend it to help the president's political allies. Further, his plan for new accountability programs could potentially give states an alternative to participating in No Child Left Behind, long before he has articulated a new direction for the law and the nation's schools.
The school reform law is so broadly -- and rightfully -- disliked that even its clumsy label is the butt of jokes. In fact, the clearest statement given so far by Duncan is that he wants to rename it; an education website has posted a contest to do so. Our vote for the most humorous, if not the best, entry: The All American Children Are Above Average Act.
Even Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), one of the principal authors of the law, has come to admit that it is overly rigid, inherently unfair and so poorly written that it actually encourages teachers not to focus their efforts on the lowest-achieving students. Yet No Child Left Behind produced some valuable results: It required schools to report, for the first time, just how little was being learned by poor and minority students. It opened the door to revelations about shockingly high dropout rates. And it introduced the long-overdue notion that schools should have to show results for the federal money they receive.
As much as schools could use federal funding, nothing will improve if the new money is spent in the same old ways. Now it's up to Congress and the Obama administration to balance the higher spending with higher expectations.