Rethinking whether it’s OK to leave children behind

Back in 1989, Bill Clinton, then the governor of a small Southern state, gave a speech at a meeting of journalists in which he defended the National Governors Association for approving education goals that included a pledge to make the U.S. No. 1 in math and science performance by 2000.

Maybe it was an unrealistically high bar to set, Clinton admitted. “But what are people saying? That we should shoot for being third or fourth?”

That bit of historical trivia comes to mind with current plans to rewrite the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

A Senate bill to reauthorize the law would essentially do away with the toughest accountability provisions in the last iteration of the law, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. It would drop the expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement that takes into account whether low-income students, special-needs kids and racial minorities are passing standardized tests. It also eliminates the provision that all students should be “proficient” in math and English by 2014.

What are they saying? That we should leave some children behind?

The proposed ESEA rewrite, put forward by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., drew generally positive reviews from the nation’s teachers unions, the Obama Administration and even some reform-minded education policy groups.

But a half-dozen civil-rights, education and progressive organizations chided the proposal for moving the government away from enforcing goals and targets for student achievement. “Yes, the states need and deserve more flexibility than NCLB afforded them,” the groups’ leaders wrote in a letter to Harkin and Enzi, “but our students need the federal government to establish an accountability framework that includes long-term statewide goals, interim goals, and an unambiguous demand for gap closing.”

It’s easy to focus on the bad things that NCLB did. It narrowed the curriculum, unfairly stigmatized schools and caused undue focus on the percentage of students who passed standardized tests, not whether all kids were making gains. And of course, the “100 percent proficient” requirement won’t be reached this side of Lake Wobegon.

But the law also changed the national conversation on education and brought long overdue attention to achievement gaps. It made it hard for schools to hide their disadvantaged students behind acceptable average scores. And it codified the expectation that, as Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy said last week in a different context, there should be no “throw-away kids.”

Sure, Congress and the administration should fix what’s wrong with the law. But as Bill Clinton might say, let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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