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No procrastinator left behind

Editorial

California's request for a waiver from a flawed federal education law has merit, but where's the state's plan?

May 15, 2012
  • High school students are shown in Antioch, Calif. The intent of No Child Left Behind was noble: to lay bare, publicly, the shockingly low academic performance of disadvantaged and minority students, and to hold schools to specific standards of improvement and punish them if they failed to meet those standards.
High school students are shown in Antioch, Calif. The intent of No Child… (Jose Carlos Fajardo/ San…)

Now that most states have received or applied for relief from the No Child Left Behind Act, California is submitting its own proposal. And in true California fashion, it's — different.

The state has long been at odds with the U.S. Education Department over the waiver process. Both sides agree that the federal law is flawed to the point of being counterproductive. But California won't agree to do what other states have promised to get out from under the law's most punitive measures: include standardized test scores as a significant component in the performance evaluations of individual teachers.

On this point, California has it right. The Obama administration has been trying to dictate its favorite, though unproven, school reforms to states by using No Child Left Behind as a stick and waivers as a carrot. Instead, it should be letting states design their own improvement plans, as long as they are substantial and specific, and then judging them by the results.

The administration's push to use tests in teacher evaluations is fairly arbitrary. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan could have chosen instead to require states to soften teacher tenure laws or offer more arts classes or picked from a host of other possible changes. We believe that test scores should play some role in judging teachers' effectiveness, but there's a dearth of evidence that this is one of the most important reforms needed in schools right now.

Yet it's hard to get behind the state's letter requesting a waiver, largely because there isn't much substance in it to get behind. The letter is thin on specific goals for improvement, and its main plan consists of a promise to make real plans at some point in the future.

No Child Left Behind is a mess of a law, but its intent was noble: to lay bare, publicly, the shockingly low academic performance of disadvantaged and minority students, and to hold schools to specific standards of improvement and punish them if they failed to meet those standards.

True, California's Academic Performance Index is a much saner way to judge schools' progress than is the federal government's, and the state's academic standards are relatively high as well. But the API needs to be strengthened — it doesn't measure anything beyond standardized test results and does too little to ensure that the achievement gap among demographic groups is narrowed over time.

Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have added worthwhile new factors to the API so that it would take into account dropout and college-preparation rates and the extent to which schools offered an enriched curriculum. The governor said he had in mind a more qualitative measurement of a school's mettle. That was seven months ago. The state and its schoolchildren are waiting.

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