NCLB Faces New Challenges, Neglects High Performers
> 9/11/2007 1:10:00 PM

The enormous spectre of No Child Left Behind persists in spite of its increasingly shaky foundations, and new congressional debate centers not on its virtues but on naming its many shortcomings in the face of revision and reauthorization by the House and Senate.

Reports culled by the House's Education Committee clarify the program's greatest tragedy: those attracting the least attention under the current program are the high-achieving low-income students whose development should be our greatest concern. While students who can't quite make the grade cannot in any way be forgotten or ignored, their more academically promising peers are the ones who will truly pave the way. For a land so defined by the premise of equal opportunity, we continue to disappoint those citizens who most need our help. These children begin their school careers with impressive performances but, in most cases, their scores gradually dip through high school, and many do not attend college at all. The performance/reprisal nature of NCLB, designed to prevent schools from skating by with the lowest possible levels of performance, often reinforces that very pattern by forcing schools to focus the greatest share of their attention on those students whose numbers are just below passing.

One bright light in this sea of gray is the fact that an even greater number of our highest-scoring students are attending college regardless of economic status. That brief moment of equality quickly disappears, however, as high-income students are considerably more likely to be accepted to our most selective colleges, to attend graduate school, and to finish college once they've begun. Higher family incomes do not equal greater intelligence, and as much as we can very rightly place a large share of the blame on home enviroments, our school system is responsible for granting these children the attention they deserve every weekday. Leaving all our kids stranded at the barely-passing level is hardly an effective policy for building tomorrow's workforce. If we can't get this one right, there are only more headaches ahead for American education. Some argue that the current portrait of American employment, comprised mostly of low-skilled jobs requiring only "work-related training" rather than high-skill "new media" positions, is actually obscuring the relevance of the college degree and that higher education does not create jobs on its own, but the fact that Wal-Mart employs millions more than Microsoft should not discourage anyone's academic aspirations.

The necessary NCLB reforms, though their implementation will be difficult, can be stated very simply: we cannot allow states and individual schools to measure their own progress and hope for some kind of objectivity. At the same time, we cannot measure degrees of success based solely on how many students score above a certain number on a standard national exam. We must also make sure that our teachers perform effectively and that the best teachers do not all land in the highest-income districts. The teacher shortage is probably the most immediate crisis threatening our education system. If addressing it requires greater funding for higher salaries, so be it. And we should consider paying more to teachers who face the greatest challenges and post the biggest gains in our country's poorest districts. The current proposal to allow the combative teachers' unions to participate in designing performance-based bonuses is a step in the right direction, even though the majority of unions will still stand against it. In keeping with the program's title, we cannot ignore certain children who perform in the above-average or exceptional range just because they do not threaten to push the scores of their respective schools below the pass/fail line. And we cannot hold students who are only beginning to learn English as a second language to the same standards as native speakers. As crucial as linguistic and cultural assimilation may be, these children cannot be accurately assessed with standards mirroring those of their English-speaking peers.

A summary of the rhetoric submitted by our own Secretary of Education: "we're on the right track, we need to stay the course." Using that most unfortunate of phrases only reinforces the failure of the current black-and-white academic mentality. The "100 percent reading/math proficiency by 2014" mantra is a meaningless banner that will inevitably collapse under increased scrutiny. Still, there is no question that the scores have risen modestly across the country in the five years since NCLB, and that development, however it came about, is a positive one. Flexibility is not a weakness, and we clearly need to change the law as we learn more about its consequences.

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