Hard knocks


CREDIT THE No Child Left Behind Act for this: It helped to reveal how little learning was going on in many classrooms, especially those with poor and minority students. As a result, educators are working to change that. This is no small accomplishment.

Still, the law has not yet achieved its key goals: improvement in student scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap between white, middle-class children and their poor, minority counterparts. Flaws in the law have held back real educational progress and unfairly placed blame on public-school teachers for everything but the weather. The law has labeled many good schools as failures, which has led to a bipartisan uprising against legislation that once had true bipartisan support. While its basic tenets should remain intact, and even be strengthened, the law needs an overhaul to deserve reauthorization this year.

It’s stated goal is to bring every child to academic “proficiency” by 2014, and it sets yearly guidelines for getting there. At the same time, it allows the states, not the federal government, to define “proficiency.” Some states (though not California) have set the standard laughably low, making a mockery of the law.


In states where proficiency actually means something, on the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily help the students who most need help. Teachers often work most with the children who are just below proficient, getting them above the bar so they’ll count as successes. Children at the bottom, who need the help even more, receive too little attention. Gifted students, meanwhile, are left out of the equation, prompting many schools to cut their programs for gifted children.

The law should be rewritten to require yearly improvement for each student -- a realistic goal that teachers can meet whatever their students’ scores were at the beginning of the year. This would encourage more good teachers to work at the schools that need them most, and would relieve schools from being blamed for the low scores of a new student whose poor performance is no fault of theirs. To close the achievement gap between minority children and white, and between poor and middle class, more growth should be expected from the lowest-scoring groups.

Other areas in which the law needs revision: It places too much emphasis on teachers who are “highly qualified,” meaning they’ve got a lot of credentials. Instead, schools need teachers who are effective -- meaning their students do well. The law must help pay for and design better tests that are true measures of what students are supposed to learn and, as President Bush has suggested, define what “proficiency” should look like.

The success of a nation depends largely on the quality of its educational system, and the international standing of the U.S. system is embarrassingly low. The key to improving it is realistic standards, rigorously enforced. No Child Left Behind has the standards and the enforcement, but it could use more realism and rigor.