Congress Backslides on School Reform

Courtney Williams's picture
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the sweeping school-reform law better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB): The debate over reauthorization has spawned a political alliance between the tea party and the teachers unions. These strange bedfellows have teamed up to push for turning teacher-evaluation standards over to the states—in other words, to turn back the clock on educational accountability.

On the right are tea party activists who want the federal government out of everything, including establishing teacher standards. On the left are teachers unions who bridle at the notion of anyone establishing enforceable teacher standards. And in the middle is another generation of American kids who are falling further and further behind their European and Asian counterparts.

Numbers released last year by the Programme for International Student Assessment showed that out of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the numbers an "absolute wakeup call for America" and urged that we face the "brutal truth" of our children's ability to compete in the global arena.

Yet Washington deals continue to ensure that the people who stand in front of our nation's classrooms never have to answer for their students' performance.

Earlier this year, Mr. Duncan told Congress that four out of five schools would fail to meet their goals under NCLB as currently written, so he pushed for the law to be overhauled with waiver packages that allowed states to circumvent the law's strict provisions on standards. When President Obama also went on record criticizing NCLB's "one size fits all" school requirements for the nation, the stage was set for a showdown.

After months of jockeying over waivers and what constitutes "adequate yearly progress" toward the goals laid out in the original legislation, we are now left with a legislative monstrosity that would make Rube Goldberg proud.

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