Andy PorterBy Andy Porter

Here’s an old farmer’s trick: Tie a carrot to a stick and dangle it in front of your donkey. The hungry donkey will go after the carrot, the donkey’s cart will start rolling, and your goods will get to market.

You’ve got to be careful, though. If your stick is too long, the donkey will know that the carrot’s out of reach; it will sit on its haunches, and your cart will go nowhere.

We’re quickly approaching a “go nowhere” moment with education reform in the U.S. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the most consequential piece of education legislation our nation has seen in generations, but its effect on school reform is starting to wane because it’s become clear that the carrot we’re chasing is much too hard to reach. By 2014, according to NCLB, all students must be able to master grade-level English and math, and that’s just not going to happen.

Unless Congress acts to revise our national goals for education, the Department of Education will soon have to label most of the nation’s schools as failures. And because of NCLB’s unrealistic expectations, standards-based education reform may stall.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to “replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

But abandoning NCLB would be a huge mistake.

Warts and all, NCLB has done a world of good for U.S. education, mostly by encouraging standards-based reforms and by focusing the nation’s attention on accountability in education. Accountability is a good thing everywhere—in education, business and industry, the legal system, you name it.

Before NCLB, I rarely heard serious conversations in classrooms, schools, and districts about how we can do better for all (not just some) of our kids. Because of the culture of accountability that’s come with NCLB, most educators now accept that we have to do a better job, and many are working to do something about the inequities between haves and have-nots.

In short, NCLB has created a real sense of urgency among the four million or so people who work in the huge industry we call education. For the first time in a long time, we are hungry for clear, attainable and measurable goals for improvement.

We need to reform NCLB, but we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We’ve learned a great deal about how to do high-stakes testing and accountability right.

Here’s what works:

  1. Set high but attainable standards. If no school can meet the performance goals we set, then we’re doomed to have no effective system of accountability at all. It just isn’t smart to have standards no one can meet. But along with more reasonable goals, we need to monitor progress so that as test scores improve, we can set the bar a little higher.
  2. Use tests to measure our goals for teachers and students. It doesn’t bother me to hear that teachers are “teaching to the test” if I’m confident the test  accurately assesses the knowledge and skills that students really need to succeed in the 21st century. If we test only reading and math, and only in some grades, as NCLB currently requires, we signal that other subjects and grades are less important. We don’t need less testing—we need better testing.  We’re making good progress in testing design, but we need to do a lot more, and quickly.
  3. Make accountability symmetric. Right now, schools and teachers are the focus of our accountability system—underperforming schools, for example, can be punished or even closed—but NCLB does not impose consequences for kids at all.  Performance rewards and sanctions should be distributed among districts, schools teachers and students.  If teachers’ job security is going to depend partly on students’ test performance, we should make test scores matter to the kids in some way as well. An effective accountability system should hold us all accountable.
  4. Be fair. If we’re going to hold teachers and schools accountable, we have to give them the resources they need to be effective—in rich districts and in poor ones, in the inner city and the countryside as well as in the suburbs. Similarly, if we’re going to hold students accountable, we need to offer them an adequate education, no matter where they live or what their racial or ethnic background is.

Some people are saying that fixing NCLB is the low-hanging fruit of the coming Congress—an issue where lawmakers of both parties can put aside partisanship and accomplish something important. For the sake of our nation’s schools, students and teachers, let’s hope they do it, and do it right.


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