'No Child' in the Crosshairs

Monday, July 2, 2007

NO ONE in his right mind would demolish his home because it had a leaky basement or it needed new carpeting. But that's the approach being advocated by those who find fault with the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law is not perfect, but its architecture of educational accountability, transparency and equality is sound. With the law up for reauthorization this year, Congress should be debating how -- not whether -- to continue this landmark education initiative.

The law faces a perilous political situation far different from the climate in the fall of 2001. President Bush, then popular and riding a wave of patriotism that grew out of Sept. 11, was able to quell traditional Republican concerns about federal involvement in education and form a partnership with Democrats. The political support that the president enjoyed is gone. And now, as the Post's Amit R. Paley reported, mounting criticism from both the political right and left have supporters of the law worried about its prospects for renewal.

The latest attack on the law comes from a surprising quarter: former top Bush aides who were instrumental in its implementation, such as Eugene W. Hickok, deputy education secretary during the president's first term. He and a growing number of Republican lawmakers would allow states to opt out of the federal requirements.

No one can doubt Mr. Hickok's commitment to bettering schools. Nor can some of his arguments about the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind be denied. For example, the law's requirement that states test students annually and show progress toward proficiency has caused some states to lower standards and water down assessments. It's difficult, though, to see how giving states even more flexibility will solve this problem. Wasn't the trouble caused by letting states decide what's good enough?

We've been unequivocal in our support of standards that have rigor and meaning. It's encouraging that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a proponent of No Child Left Behind who chairs the education committee, has identified this as one of his priorities. Some promising ideas come from the nonprofit advocacy group Education Trust. One is to encourage states to raise their standards to a "college-and-career-ready level" with the trade-off of getting more time to reach more realistic goals of proficiency. The law's original goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014, while laudatory, may be unrealistic.

Other areas cry out for improvement. Schools that are failing need help in the form of guidance and resources, rather than just sanctions, if they are to improve. Students most in need of quality teachers still aren't getting them. Provisions to get extra help for struggling students, such as private tutors, are not being applied the way they should.

Consider the landscape before No Child Left Behind. No one was really focused on results, failure had no consequences, few people were talking about the achievement gap and parents had little choice if their child's schooling wasn't doing the job. A recent report by outside experts showed students nationwide doing better on math and reading tests, as well as a narrowing of the achievement gap. To let states opt out of doing the hard, necessary work of raising standards is to turn back the clock on education reform.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company