Wednesday, April 2, 2008

National Standards and NCLB

As the Bush administration stumbles through its final months in office, Slate has been going issue by issue and explaining how the next administration should fix all of the mistakes that this administration made. Yesterday's focus was education, particularly the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). (Nice to see that someone at the national level is paying attention to the subject.)

The article was quite good and I don't have a whole lot to add to it. Essentially, the suggestions boiled down to: test kids less, make the tests mean more, standardize standards, be good to teachers, and pay more attention to preschool. All of which I agree with. So rather than argue, I'll amplify here, especially on the issue of national education standards.

Perhaps the one thing on which I agree with the Bush administration is his stated challenge to lax educational standards. As he said, "We need to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. If you have low expectations, you're going to get lousy results." Not bad for a guy who can't pronounce nuclear.

The problem was that despite saying we need to challenge low expectations, Bush through NCLB did very little to actually challenge low expectations. Instead, he set that out for the states to do. As we've learned - somehwat predictably - in the intervening years, states want to look good and keep getting lots of federal money. That means making sure schools aren't failing. That means making sure kids aren't failing the tests. And that means making sure the tests are pretty darn easy. Already low expectations got even lower.

That's where national standards come in. We have standards for financial records, air quality, food quality, and a host of other things. It's about time that we had some national standards for education as well. The fact is, there are certain things that kids need to know in order to be successful in the world today. We need to set clear, rigorous, universal standards in this country. That's the only way to truly begin challenging the "soft bigotry" that's invaded our system.

A few caveats. First, while the federal government should set standards, they should not set curriculum in any way. Not even a little bit. What works in Biloxi may not work in Boise, let alone Boston. The feds should set the bar and let each state, city, school, and teacher decide how best to get their kids over that bar. In other words, the government should set the standards, give the money, and then get out of the way.

Second, accountability needs to be carefully reconsidered. I think it's clear that there should be some accountability, but I'm not sure exactly what form that accountability should take. Punishing failing schools by taking away support doesn't make any sense. That's like taking away the life jacket from a drowning person. On the other hand, giving them more money might just be more cash into an educational black hole. I also disagree with Jim Ryan who says that schools should be ranked on their quality, but not have any real consequences as a result. That doesn't make sense because ranking doesn't lead to improvement. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have ranked near the bottom of the baseball standings for years now and they're not getting any better. Putting a name at the bottom of the list doesn't necessarily breed improvement. Rather, what's needed in failing schools is a massive infusion of aid, restructuring, and redesigning. But like with curriculum, the federal government and I are not in the position to say what that should be for each school.

Those caveats in place, national standards are the next big step in education reform. When those are in place we can compare apples to apples within states and across states. With a nationally-defined criteria for educational excellence, we can truly begin to combat the soft bigotry of low expectations.

No comments: