The Obama administration has made a promising move regarding school reform with its "Race to the Top" program. The $4.3 billion in federal grants is intended to reward states and schools that introduce new models of innovation and accountability.
What needs reform just as badly as the schools, however, is the No Child Left Behind Act, a well-meant but ham-handed law that actually encourages schools to lower their academic standards and that often leaves behind the students who most need help. That revision cannot wait; it must take place in tandem with the grant program. Neither the federal government nor schools can measure success without reasonable, consistent targets.
Fortunately, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has started talking about overhauling No Child Left Behind. Though the details have not been worked out, Duncan has found the right focus: The law's method of determining whether schools have met their goals is rigid, unrealistic and counterproductive.
Under the 7-year-old law, a school is considered to be "failing" unless a certain percentage of students score as proficient on standardized state tests each year. And raising the number of proficient students isn't enough; schools are given targets for each demographic group, including ethnicity, socioeconomic level and special education needs. A school that misses any of the targets lands in the failure category.
Under these restrictive rules, many a school that is making real headway is nonetheless tarred. And because the law gives states the authority to define proficiency, they have an incentive to set the bar low. Some of them have.
With its insistence on proficiency as the only determiner of progress, the law is out of touch with the realities of struggling schools. It is practically impossible for students who start out at the bottom levels of achievement to rise to proficiency within a year or two, but schools get no credit for significant improvements that fall short of that mark. The result: Many schools put their biggest efforts into raising the achievement of students who are just below proficient, because those students give them the best chance of meeting federal targets.
The Obama administration has rightly embraced the basic tenets of testing, reporting and accountability in No Child Left Behind, the cornerstone of education policy under the George W. Bush administration. Progress has been made under the law, though too slowly. Equally important, the law has revealed exactly how far behind many students are.
Nevertheless, Congress will probably put up more resistance to this overdue rewrite than it did to spending an additional $4.3 billion on schools. That would be a shame. Judicious accountability standards and the funding to achieve them ought to go hand in hand.