If the No Child Left Behind Act is to be overhauled -- and it should be -- the new version should strip away the law's overly prescriptive notions of what constitutes improvement and impose fairer ways of holding schools accountable. Though some of the fixes outlined Monday by the Obama administration would improve the law, others could prove as rigid, and therefore as unrealistic, as the original, which naively promised to make every student academically proficient.
The new target is for 100% of high schoolers to be graduating by 2020, and for all of those graduates to be "college ready." We're glad to see the Obama administration target dropout rates; reducing them is a necessary and achievable goal. No Child Left Behind never paid enough attention to the one-third of students who leave school without a diploma.
But the first step toward graduating more students should be robust vocational education, which has largely fallen by the wayside. The term "college ready" is trendy in school reform, but many students aren't interested in college, especially the ones most at risk of dropping out. Engaging these students means providing courses that fit a range of abilities and interests.
Besides, the assumption should be that every college-ready graduate is proficient. This goal sounds like a reworded version of the old one, setting an arbitrary date by which students must be proficient.
Using his "more carrots, fewer sticks" approach, the president also proposes to restructure Title I funding for impoverished students so schools showing the most improvement -- perhaps the top 10% -- receive more money. He also proposes takeovers, with wholesale firings of school staff, for the bottom 5% of schools.
But bonuses for high-performing schools are the wrong approach. Obama's plan doesn't take into account local differences in student populations and resources. Would charter schools qualify for the extra funding, even though they enroll a more motivated group of students, can expel low performers and generally have lower numbers of special-education students and non-English speakers? That would reward schools for succeeding with a less challenging group of students. More important, there are a lot of schools between the top 10% and bottom 5%. It's unclear what sort of aid or accountability would apply to them.
The plan also continues to count on charter schools to drive education reform, without first determining whether they provide a superior education; several studies suggest they don't -- and without requiring that charters educate populations similar to those at public schools.
A true makeover of No Child Left Behind would reduce, though not eliminate, the importance of annual standardized tests, involve parents more in their children's education and revamp teacher training and assessment. This isn't the solution that frustrated educators and parents have been seeking.