How to Help Our Students

By Jeb Bush and Michael R. Bloomberg
Sunday, August 13, 2006

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 sent an enormously important message to politicians and educators across America: Stop making excuses for low student achievement and start holding your schools accountable for results.

Florida and New York City are leaders when it comes to accountability in education. We have set high expectations for all students, and in key grades we have eliminated social promotion, the harmful practice of pushing unprepared students ahead. We grade schools based on student performance and growth so that parents and the public, as well as school administrators, know which schools are working well and which are not. Our emphasis on accountability is a big reason our schools are improving, our students are performing at higher levels and we're closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

The No Child Left Behind Act brought the same emphasis to thousands of schools across the country -- some for the first time in their history. Yet since the law's passage, we have learned some things about how to put the principles of accountability into practice in a way that most effectively promotes student achievement. As Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the act, we believe it should be guided by four main lessons:

· Make standards meaningful. Ensure that every state sets a high standard for proficiency. The existing law left room for states to define proficiency levels, and some have dumbed them down to create the illusion of progress. We need a uniform measuring stick.

The well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is administered in every state, should become an official benchmark for evaluating states' standards. States that accept federal money without maintaining NAEP standards should be required to bring their standards into line. We believe in the role of sovereign states in our federalist system, but we also believe it is in our national interest to raise standards and expectations.

· Encourage student gains. When the law was written five years ago, Congress didn't think it was possible to follow an individual student's performance from year to year. As a result, the law defines success largely by the total number of students meeting a proficiency standard -- not by whether individual students are improving.

Florida and New York City, along with many other jurisdictions, have developed data systems to track and encourage every student's growth from one year to the next. By focusing on individual progress, as well as overall proficiency levels, we encourage schools to help all students improve -- from the lowest achievers to the most gifted -- not only those performing just below the proficiency threshold.

Congress should revise the law to take into account the gains that schools achieve with all of their students, not just the number of students who are proficient. With students, states and school districts at different levels in terms of academic performance, we need a system that encourages every student to improve continuously.

· Recognize degrees of progress. Congress should consider that there are more than just two options for rating schools -- passing and failing. Rather than the current all-or-nothing system, the law should reward levels of performance at each school. Many schools are making great progress with the majority of their students. The schools should be acknowledged for that and encouraged to strive toward full proficiency. Florida and now New York City are giving schools grades of A, B, C, D and F -- enabling us to recognize and support progress at all levels and to hold schools accountable for success.

Make no mistake, federal law should remain demanding. We believe that with these changes schools would face greater pressure to make sure all children, even those who would otherwise excel easily or drop out entirely, continue to learn.

· Reward and retain high-quality teachers. Tests can measure progress, but ultimately teachers must drive it. The law should go further than ensuring that teachers are qualified. It should also ensure that they are performing well and being paid accordingly. Congress should support measures that link pay with performance, raise pay for teachers in fields with shortages and high-needs communities, toughen standards for achieving tenure, and create meaningful paths for dismissing poor educators.

The opponents of accountability have seized on the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act in an effort to do away with the law altogether. That is wrong. A little common sense could go a long way toward making sure that the nation's accountability system is realistic, tough and fair. Incorporating these four basic lessons will allow us to realize the law's full promise and help children realize their dreams.

Jeb Bush, a Republican, is governor of Florida. Michael R. Bloomberg, also a Republican, is mayor of New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company