Robert Gordon’s cover story in this week’s New Republic, about No Child Left Behind, really sums up nicely a lot of things we’ve been saying for awhile. Yes, yes, the act’s far from perfect, and it is true that it needs better funding. But the overall goals of the act—from nationwide standards to accountability to an increased focus on minority students—are extremely laudable, and liberals too often lose sight of that when lambasting the Bush administration on education. The anti-NCLB trend that Gordon notices is nothing short of disturbing:
Resistance to federal power is now a progressive rallying cry in education. Democrats at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently helped draft a bipartisan report charging that NCLB infringes upon states’ Tenth Amendment rights. Most Utah Democrats supported a new state law jeopardizing $76 million in aid to poor students on the grounds that the state’s own assessment system should have priority over NCLB. But that state system does not even exist today; the real question, as the law’s lead sponsor asked, was, “At what price is our sovereignty for sale?” The National Education Association (NEA) is now suing Washington for forcing states to spend more money on education. Connecticut’s Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has praised the suit and threatened to bring one of his own….
Thanks to NCLB, many schools are now offering those students help they desperately need. If the NEA’s suit prevails in court, it won’t even yield more money; it will just yield precedents limiting federal power and enable states to ignore the law’s demands. That would be sad: One of the NEA’s plaintiffs told The New York Times that NCLB had forced her district to offer longer school days and Saturday classes for low-achieving students. Progressives should celebrate that fact, not complain about it.
Other proposals from the left would dash inner-city hopes to placate suburban anxieties. Many parents at better schools now worry that rote “teaching to the test” has crowded out better teaching. Much of that problem could be addressed by spending more on complex assessments worth teaching to. That would preserve the accountability so critical in the worst schools, which, at least now, are teaching to something. Yet many progressives, including state legislators and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, would allow student performance to be counterbalanced by academic indicators of states’ choosing. In some iterations, these measures could include parental satisfaction or student attendance. This regime would replace the clear demand for student achievement with a malleable nonstandard. It would be fine for most students in Greenwich, but a step backward for Bridgeport and New Haven.
This sort of thing really needs to stop—and indeed, one perverse effect here is that much of the carping is undermining parent and teacher support for NCLB, which only increases the chance of failure. As Gordon notes, the answer to too much “teaching to the test” isn’t to end all accountability, and shrink back into our decentralized school-control shells, but to create better tests. Today’s New York Times has a good bit of reporting on how standards and accountability have reaped positive gains in New York City. That’s the sort of thing that should always be embraced, period.
Meanwhile, Gordon suggests that liberals ought to focus more on improving teacher quality. Agreed. I was always rather surprised that John Kerry never made more hay over his excellent plan to institute pay-for-performance standards for teachers in underserved areas. It’s a genuinely good idea, and as Gordon notes, many of the worries about “arbitrary merit bonuses” on this issue are a bit overblown—teachers would be evaluated just like employees at many other companies, all across the nation, are evaluated. That’s no terrible thing, especially if it comes with an overall hike in pay and assurances that the most talented teachers will get ahead. Fortunately, some liberal think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to hop on this bandwagon—let’s just hope they stay with it rather than succumbing to NCLB-bashing all for the sake of scoring points against the White House. There are a million of other Bush initiatives to roast alive; this one should be treated with more caution.
UPDATE: Of course, no one wants to go too far in the other direction. Teach and Learn worries that Democratic education reformers concerned with performance could grow too intolerant of teacher’s unions. Good cautionary note.