Tending grandsons and schools

September 29, 2011

I have been babysitting my small grandsons for the past week. My method reminds me of President Obama’s decision to grant waivers that free states from some of the more oppressive and dysfunctional parts of the No Child Left Behind law. I let Ben and Tom wander around the apartment, pounding on whatever toys interest them. I check only occasionally to see if they are wet or hungry.

Am I lazy? Irresponsible? Maybe. But my method, and the president’s, encourages creativity and reduces paperwork. It also raises the issue of whether the tighter control employed by other caregivers, and the No Child Left Behind bureaucracy, is worth the trouble.

I thought No Child Left Behind, despite its insane but politically necessary target of making nearly all students proficient by 2014, was a good idea when it took effect in 2002. I still think that it did more good than harm. It forced all districts to measure how much their poor and minority students were learning. There was more political support and money for schools focused on raising the achievement of children who needed extra help.

Stephanie Germeraad of The Education Trust, a Washington-based group that supported No Child Left Behind, listed for me achievement improvements since the law took effect, but made the appropriate disclaimer: “We can’t claim that NCLB caused those gains.”

Math scores for 13-year-old African Americans on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress declined at an average of 0.33 points annually from 1996 to 1999 and rose 1.25 points annually from 2004 to 2008. Among 9-year-old African Americans, reading scores declined 1.67 points annually from 1996 to 1999 and rose 1.75 points annually from 2004 to 2008.

The president has left the required annual testing in place, a protection against state changes going too far, the equivalent of babyproofing in my grandsons’ home. Still, ma ny people think we should dump No Child Left Behind altogether. They may be right. But they should lose the fanciful notion that once federal rules requiring testing disappear we will return to schools orchestrated by teachers and not data-happy psychometricians.

Those wishful thinkers have forgotten that before No Child Left Behind was unleashed on America, 33 states already had testing and accountability systems similar to the new federal law. If it had not passed, it is likely that those school systems, including Virginia, Maryland, the District and the biggest states---would have stuck with their tests despite the complaints.

Those state laws, and No Child Left Behind, came out of a popular political movement that began with Southern Democratic governors such as Bill Clinton and Dick Riley in the 1980s. Its leaders felt their economies were being hurt by bad schools. That concern about the effect of education on future jobs is still with us. Legitimate or not (I am among those who think politicians exaggerate schools’ economic effect), it is not going away. Governors and legislators may fiddle with the details, but at least for the next few decades most American students will have to put up with external monitoring of how much they are learning, even if many educators will find it irritating and unnecessary.

Congress, with much bigger problems, may eventually let NCLB die and leave education to the states. Obama emphasized the vitality of local innovations. The most promising changes I have seen in schools in the last three decades were almost all born in classrooms, not committee rooms.

Ideas that are gleaned from a national consensus like No Child Left Behind don’t necessarily need national rules. Like my grandsons, states and districts often do fine following their own instincts, with an occasional critical report or election loss to steer them away from making a big mess. Ben and Tom learn more without their sitter following them everywhere, and I save my energy for the big moments, like Little League.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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