Wilhoit: No Child Left Behind in Desperate Need of Reform

Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:31pm

Almost a decade ago, No Child Left Behind’s creators had the right goals in mind — academic proficiency for all students, transparent reporting of school performance and a laser focus on holding states, districts and schools accountable for student achievement. However, while teachers and schools have worked tirelessly to achieve these goals, the law’s overly prescriptive design is stifling progress.

Under NCLB, the clock for our schools is ticking down to nationwide failure in 2014, and the law must be updated.

School chiefs across the country — the secretaries, commissioners and superintendents of our state education departments — refuse to sit idly by. Together, they have developed a set of principles to form a more valid and reliable accountability system that delivers on our promise of high achievement for all students.

Fortunately, on the heels of the administration’s recent decision to waive NCLB requirements for states based on adherence to these accountability principles, the Senate is now following suit with the introduction of a bill to reform the outdated law.

This is a much-needed step forward. It is critical that Congress finish the job, as lasting, systemic change can come only through rewriting and reauthorizing an improved federal law.

One of No Child Left Behind’s main flaws is that it provides too simplistic a view of whether schools are meeting our children’s needs. It “fails” many schools that have actually made significant gains, successfully increasing student performance, graduation rates and college matriculation.

In 2014, a projected 80 percent of schools will be lumped together in the failing category, rendering states unable to distinguish the shades of gray. Schools on the edge of success will be knocked off course, and those needing the most help won’t get the attention they deserve.

State education leaders have worked together to create a new accountability framework that moves beyond blanket passing or failing labels. It will evaluate students in a more meaningful way — looking at growth and more academic subjects — with a focus on college and career readiness. It will paint a clearer picture of school performance and thus will provide an accurate measuring stick for school systems to plan against.

Further, these school evaluations will determine the best interventions for struggling schools, while maintaining our commitment to the progress of all students. Within this framework, states have the flexibility to experiment with innovations that improve accountability.

This shift in thinking about accountability does not signal a retreat from high expectations for all students, only a better way of gauging whether students are meeting these expectations, so that schools can continuously improve and use resources efficiently. Kentucky, Georgia, Colorado and Indiana are among the pioneering states blazing the trail toward new accountability systems. Other states are also coming forward with new plans incorporating these principles in the coming months.

I applaud the administration’s recent decision to provide flexibility under NCLB and to let states take the lead on accountability — a radical departure from a decades-long tradition wherein the federal government has driven education policy while states focused primarily on funding allotment and compliance.

However, this is only a short-term solution.

Ultimately, improved accountability must be incorporated into federal law, best articulated in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Senate introduction of a bill to scrap the ineffective components of our current system and instead follow the state-developed accountability framework is an encouraging step forward. This bill and other proposals in the Senate recognize the critical role states are playing by setting high expectations for all students while providing the necessary supports to ensure students reach those expectations.

I urge Congress to maintain this momentum and quickly pass legislation that establishes rigorous educational goals but gives states and districts the flexibility to determine the means of achieving them.

The No Child Left Behind Act remains the single largest legislative stepping-stone toward a public school system that holds its teachers and schools accountable for preparing all students for college and careers.

But it has lost credibility and is in desperate need of reform. It is time for Congress to cross this hurdle and reauthorize an improved Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Our youngest citizens must be our top priority, and they simply cannot wait any longer for a better public education system.

Gene Wilhoit is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the organization that represents the state superintendents of education. Wilhoit previously served as superintendent of education in Kentucky and Arkansas.