Had Enough Top-Down Reform?

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007; 10:42 AM

Here comes another helpful report from a five-star, blue-ribbon, highly respected, serious-minded, no-nonsense, ground-breaking, cannot-be-ignored, significant national commission.

The report of The Commission on No Child Left Behind, co-chaired by former Wisconsin governor and former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Tommy G. Thompson and former Georgia governor Roy E. Barnes and sponsored by the Aspen Institute, was released this morning. It says all the right things about how to produce more effective teachers and principals, better school-assessment systems and more sensible ways of helping our most disadvantaged children.

This may be the most prestigious of the groups recommending improvements in the No Child Left Behind law. But it isn't the only one. As Congress lurches toward reauthorizing the most ambitious federal education law in our history, we are hearing all kinds of suggestions about No Child Left Behind from every imaginable quarter.

But the more I read these well-intended documents, the more I wonder. Haven't we had enough of this stuff? Are we really going to get significant improvement in our lowest-performing schools through more reports telling us how to fix the federal rules?

I share the view of the majority of Congress, and the leaders of both major parties, that No Child Left Behind was a good idea. It forced the states to pay attention to the poor teaching in our low-income neighborhood schools. That was something many of those states failed to do under an earlier law that asked them nicely but had no serious penalties if they told Washington to mind its own business. Nearly everybody in education applauds No Child Left Behind's insistence on measuring the progress each school and district is making in helping low-income students, learning-disabled students, students from immigrant families and students from the most neglected minority groups.

There are recommendations in the Thompson-Barnes report that I think both make sense and have a chance of being implemented. Assessing teacher quality based on improved achievement of their students, allowing low-income school principals to refuse to accept teachers who have not met the highest quality standards, requiring education schools to teach courses that prepare future teachers for the real-life conditions of inner city classrooms and requiring states to evaluate the effectiveness of federally-mandated after-school tutoring are among the commission's best recommendations. Some of them may find support on Capitol Hill.

But there is also a lot of mush in the report. As is usual with such commissions, the members and staff want to make sure they reflect many points of views, since thoughtful people took the trouble to attend their hearings and share their favorite ideas. Unfortunately, many of these proposals don't make much sense.

The Thompson-Barnes commission recommends that the federal government hold schools accountable for improving graduation rates. That sounds great, but it will do little good because we have yet to develop techniques that significantly improve graduation rates in low-income schools of anything but the smallest sizes. Another commission recommendation, requiring high-performing schools to reserve 10 percent of their seats for students who want to transfer from low-performing schools, is also bad. Nearly anyone can see it is a recipe for parental revolt and administrative disaster. A third recommendation, increasing the amount of federal funds set aside by the states for school improvement from 4 to 5 percent of school poverty allocations, will likewise do little. State officials can define "school improvement programs" any way they like and send the money to the least troublesome programs, which are often the least effective.

Some of the commission recommendations might bear fruit, but most of them will just spark more of the arguments over turf and image that characterize much of what passes for school reform these days.

In Virginia, where I sit at my desk in Alexandria and sort through these reports, we have a bitter argument going on between the school superintendent and school board of Fairfax County and one of the county's best-known residents, U. S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Along with at least two other Virginia school districts, Fairfax is refusing to follow the rule set by Spellings' department that they, like the vast majority of other school districts in the country, give children from immigrant families the same state assessment test they give all their other students.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides. Fairfax says 80 percent of the county's students of limited English proficiency are already getting the state test, and the remaining children are in the early stages of learning the language. To these children, the test would be mostly incomprehensible and a waste of time. Spellings says that it is important to measure just how far behind they are, and that the law will not work if some rich and powerful districts such as Fairfax, as in the bad old days before No Child Left Behind, are allowed to tell the federal rule makers to go take a long jump into their nearest recreational reservoir.

Fixing schools is not supposed to be about adult fits of pique and petulance. It is supposed to be about kids.

It is, I admit, borderline ridiculous for me to suggest that we stop spending so much time and money pumping the federal law full of new rules, because this is America and that is about the only way the officials we elect know how to change things they don't like. But it would be helpful, I think, if we embraced the likely delays in fixing No Child Left Behind and used the time to think about other ways to go at this.

I would like to take much of the money the Education Department spends getting states to obey the law and invest it instead in the department's admirable programs to identify which public schools are doing the best jobs educating low-income children, and why they are succeeding.

The schools that have surprised me by raising student achievement far above expectations have rarely done that because state and federal school officials gave them new rules to follow. In nearly every case, good teachers found methods that worked and persuaded other good teachers to join them for the joy of working in schools where they knew their efforts would help kids in a big way.

Bottom-up reform, I realize, is often slow and uncertain. But is top-down reform any better? A little bit more of the former, and a bit less of the latter, might be the way to go. The next several good-hearted national commissions could then spend their time not fiddling with the law, but finding the schools that work and explaining to the rest of us why that happened, and how other schools could do the same.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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