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NCLB School Reform Deserves Renewal, and It's Not Enough

By Mort Kondracke

There's reason to hope that Congress will reauthorize, extend and improve the landmark 2001 No Child Left Behind Act school-accountability law. But, by itself, the federal program is clearly not going to solve America's education crisis.

The crisis, documented in one alarming report after another, is that American schools systematically are failing their students and endangering the nation's ability to match global economic competition.

Beyond NCLB, there has to be drastic action at the state level, where responsibility for education primarily lies. And school reform needs the backing of 2008 presidential candidates, who so far have said little about it.

The newest dismal evidence came out from the National Assessment of Education Progress last month: American 12th graders in 2005 performed worse in reading than 12th graders did in 1992. Only 35 percent of students about to graduate could read at grade level. Only 23 percent were proficient in math.

And these numbers apply only to students finishing high school. Fully a quarter of youngsters entering high school drop out, including 50 percent of minority kids.

The Bush administration once again is proposing to extend NCLB's regimen of state standards-setting, testing and accountability to the nation's high schools and, this year, Congress likely will go along -- in the process, upping Bush's paltry request for just $1.2 billion to finance the effort.

In an interview, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told me "the major focus of NCLB has been on our elementary and middle schools, grades three through eight. And that is where we have seen the power of the improvement, proving the adage that 'what gets measured, gets done.'"

Spellings can cite some evidence of progress in the lower grades -- 70 percent of schools meeting state-set adequate yearly progress marks, record-setting reading and math scores for 9-year-olds and math scores for 13-year-olds, plus some closure of disparities between whites and minorities.

And yet, the goal of NCLB is that all American schoolchildren will be proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- not world-class, just proficient, able to read with critical judgment and solve minimally complex math problems. Right now, five years into the NCLB era, the United States is far from there -- far.

Study results in 2005 showed that in 1992, 29 percent of fourth graders read proficiently. By 2005, that percentage was up to just 31 percent. The same applied to eighth graders. Average math scores increased significantly, but the percentages performing proficiently in 2005 were 36 percent for fourth graders and 30 percent for eighth graders.

"Scores have increased, but they are really low," commented Phillip Lovell, education specialist at the youth advocacy group First Focus. "At 30 percent proficiency, you'd have to say that on a traditional grading scale of A to F, as a country we are still way below the lowest F."

Beyond proficiency levels, Lovell noted, "the scariest numbers" are a doubling in the number of schools failing to meet adequate yearly progress levels for four or five years, requiring either corrective action or restructuring. Nearly 10 percent of schools serving low-income children are expected to need restructuring by 2008.

As part of his runup to formal hearings on NCLB reauthorization, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) last week called for special efforts to attract top-quality teachers to high-needs schools. But he and other Democrats stoutly oppose the administration's favorite remedy: vouchers to permit ill-served pupils and parents to escape to private, parochial or out-of-district public schools.

Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has blessed the recommendations of a bipartisan commission assembled by the Aspen Institute that included a requirement that school teachers serving low-income students receive the same salaries as teaching higher-income students.

Democrats tend to resist, however, a proposal of the Bush administration that chronically poor-performance schools be freed from the strictures of union contracts so that they can be restaffed and more effectively managed by principals.

To its credit, the administration is budgeting $500 million to help schools needing improvement. But it has no position, as of yet, on a Kennedy-sponsored measure, the Keeping Pace Act, to facilitate community support for low-income schools or a forthcoming measure sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to target $2.5 billion at "dropout factories," the 15 percent of schools accounting for more than half of the nation's dropouts.

Welcome as federal action on the schools is, Spellings points out that the states account for 92 percent of national school funding and the bulk of education responsibility. And half of the states failed to meet their planning responsibilities under NCLB until the last minute.

A new report just issued jointly by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the liberal Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute, "Leaders and Laggards," rates the states on overall academic achievement, minority progress, return on investment, proficiency truth-in-advertising and other measures.

Its bottom line is that "despite decades of reform efforts and many trillions of dollars of public investment, U.S. schools are not equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they -- and our nation -- so badly need."

The state with the best academic achievement records of all -- Massachusetts -- could boast only that about half of its students scored proficiently on the National Assessment of Education Progress. At the bottom was Washington, D.C., with proficiency ratings barely above 10 percent.

The chamber hopes to equip its state affiliates and member businesses to confront state legislatures, local school boards and teachers unions to demand reform. It's a worthy purpose.

And it could use some help from a presidential candidate who'll call for a grand trade -- professional level pay for teachers in return for professional accountability, pay-for-performance and an end to rigid union work rules. Also, equalization of funding between rich and poor school districts, a longer school day and a longer school year and more investment in early childhood education.

Republicans resist spending more. Democrats chronically do the bidding of the teachers unions. America's kids and the country's future need a president who'll break that rancid mold.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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