Duncan’s Decision on NCLB is the Right Call

August 9th, 2011

Category: News

Secretary Duncan made the right call when he announced plans to override the centerpiece requirement of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school accountability law that requires 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

I was working in the Washington D.C. area in 2002 when President Bush signed NCLB into law.  I remember my colleagues debating whether or not a 100 percent proficiency requirement  in federal law was a good idea.  Optimists felt that even if significant gains over a decade were possible, perfection was unlikely, if not impossible.  Others worried about those who would be left behind, even if the law were ratcheted back to a more modest expectation. For example, which of our students would be the losing 20 percent if we asked for 80 percent proficiency by 2014? Low income, non-English speakers, special needs students, or some of each?

Leaders in state education agencies (SEAs) saw the conundrum and banked on the fact that a new presidential administration would revise the law sometime down the road.  As a result, they submitted short-sighted plans to the USED, which were approved: modest targets in early years, followed by much higher targets in the last three to four years.  This is where we are now—at the blade end of the hockey stick where the curve changes dramatically.  Today as a result, rather than just a handful of schools and districts not meeting the state’s approved targets, the percentage is much larger. In Delaware the figure is around 50 percent and in places like Florida, close to 90 percent are falling short.

So why does this matter? Because if schools fail to meet what is called “AYP” or Adequate Yearly Progress, states won’t have the resources to support the schools that fall into this designation.  In addition, the federal government’s role in encouraging education reform will have lost all credibility.

Some might argue that we should get rid of USED.  Because if the Constitution is silent on the federal role in our schools and so many of our educators are frustrated by the implementation of NCLB, what is the point?  Others might think that putting the decisions back solely into the hands of citizens is a great idea.

But stripping the USED of its current role is a flawed argument with disastrous implications. First, if you look at the 2009 report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), you will see that all of the countries surpassing us on international student achievement measures have much stronger national roles in education policy, not less.  Second, giving the 14,000 individual districts and school boards in this country complete control over accountability targets would create different standards and expectations from town to town, in essence, chaos.  If we have dramatically different definitions of proficiency in Massachusetts, Mississippi and Montana, our children will suffer the consequences when they walk into a global economy.

While hardly a straightforward decision with important details to consider, for me, the bottom line is this:  If this country is to regain its place internationally, there is a real and important role for the federal government to play.  Secretary Duncan’s decision may have been a short-term measure to avoid what he called a “slow motion train wreck,” but in the long term, there is a critical role for the federal government to play.  So, let’s hope this waiver strategy helps now and that this Congress can get around to the important issue of fixing NCLB in 2012.


*Read how Delaware may be impacted.

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Paul Herdman




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