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How To Fix 'No Child'

By Edward M. Kennedy
Monday, January 7, 2008

With renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act high on the agenda for the new session of Congress, it's no surprise that the 2002 law -- the Bush administration's signature domestic initiative -- has become a political football in this intense campaign season. The administration continues to speak glowingly of the law while Democratic candidates blast it. But simplistic campaign rhetoric hardly reflects what's actually happening on school reform.

Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the law's enactment. It's a good time to take realistic stock of things. Obviously, the results are mixed. Many elements of the reforms have produced encouraging progress for young children in public schools across the nation, and they deserve to be supported. Other aspects of the law have not been satisfactory, and some have been failures. These must be changed.

The stakes are high. At issue is a goal that Democrats have long embraced as a fundamental principle of our party -- opportunity for all Americans. Strengthening the nation's schools is essential for preparing our citizens to compete and win in the global economy. We in Congress have an obligation to parents, to teachers and, most of all, to schoolchildren across America to draw the right lessons from these past six years with the No Child Left Behind Act and put school reform on a stronger path for the future.

On the plus side, the law demands that all children must benefit -- black or white, immigrant or native-born, rich or poor, disabled or not. Before its enactment, only a handful of states monitored the achievement of every group of students in their schools. Today, all 50 states must do that. Across the country, schools are poring over student data to identify weaknesses in instruction and to improve teaching and learning. All schools now measure performance based not on the achievement of their average and above-average students but on their progress in helping below-average students reach high standards as well.

The positive changes are evident in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as "The Nation's Report Card." The improvements are still modest, but they're noticeable, particularly among students who formerly were low achievers. We're beginning to see a narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and other students.

All of this is good news. But the law still needs major changes to bring out the best in all children. The process for rating troubled schools fails to reward incremental progress made by schools struggling to catch up. Its one-size-fits-all approach encourages "teaching to the test" and discourages innovation in the classroom. We need to encourage local decision makers to use a broader array of information, beyond test scores, to determine which schools need small adjustments and which need extensive reforms.

The act doesn't do enough to support teachers as the professionals they are by training and mentoring them and by placing good teachers in the schools that need them most. It fails to deal with the dropout crisis, which puts large numbers of young students beyond the reach of the American dream. It doesn't involve parents enough in helping their children succeed. It falls short in achieving smaller classes so that teachers can give children the one-on-one attention they need.

Most of all, the law fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance. We can't achieve progress for all students on the cheap. No child should have to attend crumbling schools or learn from an outdated textbook, regardless of where he or she lives. It's disgraceful that President Bush has failed to include adequate funding for school reform in his education budgets. Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget.

Four decades ago, my brother Robert Kennedy asked at a Senate hearing on education: "What happened to the children?" That question is as appropriate today as it was in 1966. We're still not doing enough for the nation's schools and children.

As Democrats and Republicans choose their nominees in our democratic process, and as President Bush prepares to deliver his last State of the Union address, let us all remember that we owe it to our children and our children's children to put progress ahead of politics and support what is working in school reform, and to work together to fix what is not.

The writer, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, was a lead author of the No Child Left Behind Act.

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