Thomas J. Donohue is president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Wade Henderson is president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
As leaders of organizations that do not always agree, we come together at a critical moment for our children and our country. We are devoted to a common goal for all Americans — providing a high-quality education for every young person. Unfortunately, our public education system fails to educate all children to high standards. We refuse to sit by and do nothing.
Congress has rightly placed a priority on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current form as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This law was last reauthorized in 2002. While it is true that the law needs revising, core provisions must remain to fulfill its promise of delivering a quality education to all.
The generation of young people being educated in today’s public schools has never been more diverse, with our schools serving more students of color, students with disabilities and English-language learners. While these groups lag behind their peers in achievement and access to opportunity, we know the law has made a difference. Now’s the time to strengthen what works in NCLB, not abandon the progress we’ve made.
First, students must be given annual statewide assessments, which provide the only way for us to accurately measure what students are learning. Let’s be clear: The federal law only requires students to be tested once or twice a year. Concern about overtesting is driven by local and state policies, not by Washington.
Second, public reporting of data must be preserved. NCLB requires states to publish and disaggregate data by subgroups so we know which students are being well served and which ones are not. It’s hard to imagine that before NCLB we didn’t have data on how African American or Hispanic students performed compared with their white peers. We didn’t know how well low-income students fared. This was just 13 years ago.
Finally, strong state accountability systems are vital. This is the provision in the current law that may be the most controversial and in greatest need of tweaking. As it stands, accountability is directed from Washington, and we agree states should have flexibility in developing their systems. But make no mistake: There must be strong state accountability systems with expectations for improving achievement as well as interventions when schools fall short for all students or groups of students. This is not only sound fiscal management of taxpayer dollars but also sound public policy.
These ideas, of course, were the underpinnings of the 2002 law. Although it’s popular in many corners to deride this law, the data are clear — since NCLB, children of color and youngsters from low-income families have made the fastest improvements in achievement in decades. We agree that adjustments need to be made, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Strong leadership is needed. As a nation, we must ask ourselves if we are committed to the success of every child. Are we going to bow to the special interests of adults, or will we stand strong for the special interest that has no lobby — our children? We have made great progress for millions of kids since NCLB. Let’s not return to a time when these students were left in the shadows.