Published: October 26, 2011, The New York Times
The revised No Child Left Behind Act that passed out of the Senate education committee last week goes too far in relaxing state accountability and federal oversight of student achievement. The business community, civil rights groups and advocates of disabled children are rightly worried that the rewrite of the law would particularly hurt underprivileged children.
The bill’s main sponsors — Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa, and Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican of Wyoming — should take the criticism to heart and go back to the drawing board.
The original No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is far from perfect. The Obama administration recognized that in September when it said that it would waive some of the law’s requirements for states that agree to several reforms, like creating new programs to overhaul the worst schools and comprehensive teacher evaluation systems.
The waiver plan would allow states to be rated on student growth on math and reading tests instead of simply counting up the percentages of students who reach proficiency on those tests. It would also require states to set goals for all schools and plan for closing achievement gaps and end the pass-fail system under which high-performing schools are rated as needing improvement if one racial or economic subgroup fails to reach the achievement target.
The plan encourages states to embrace data-driven systems and teacher-evaluation systems that take student achievement into account. But it has not been well received in the Senate, where some lawmakers seem to feel as if it usurps legislative power.
The Harkin-Enzi bill lowers the bar for reform and reduces federal pressure on the states. It focuses only on the bottom 5 percent of schools, essentially allowing states to do as they please with the rest. It backs away from requiring states to have clear student achievement targets for all schools, and does not require most schools to evaluate teachers rigorously.
Lawmakers are right that No Child Left Behind needs to be overhauled. But Congress needs to do this carefully, without retreating from core provisions that require states to do better by children in return for federal aid.