Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Return of No Child Left Behind

School reform was one of the few prominent successes of former President George W. Bush -- and one that has actually been embraced by his successor, Barack Obama​. But you wouldn’t know it from last week's GOP presidential debate.

Certainly there was plenty of drama -- including the sparring match between Rep. Michele Bachmann and now-former candidate Tim Pawlenty​, and the cheers from attendees after Ron Paul​ declared that he would pull troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The debate and the straw poll that followed two days later have reshaped the race for the Republican nomination. But, interestingly, none of the candidates had anything to say about the steps they would take to follow up on Bush's efforts to address America's woeful public schools. Those schools are spurring a crisis of dropouts who will burden the nation's economy -- and weigh on the federal budget as welfare recipients -- for decades to come.

Save for Herman Cain, who passingly noted that "we need vouchers," none of the candidates offered any sort of coherent views on education policy. As for No Child Left Behind? They didn't even bother. Huntsman made it clear that he did not favor the law, while Mitt Romney -- the most prominent supporter of the law during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts -- couldn't even offer a thought on the Obama administration's announcement last week that it was essentially gutting No Child. The Administration is bypassing Congress and offering waivers to states that allow them to avoid scrutiny under No Child’s school accountability rules. And none of the GOP candidates said a word about it.

In fact, almost none of the candidates have taken strong positions on efforts to expand school choice or even how to overhaul the federal government's $100 billion a year in public-school allotments. The candidates who have some experience in this arena -- like Jon Huntsman -- are running away from their political records. As Utah governor, Huntsman vetoed one school voucher proposal and allegedly watered down another. This is why Huntsman's most prominent former backer, founder Patrick Byrne (one of the nation's best-known supporters of school choice), proclaimed last week in Politico that he would never support Huntsman for a presidential bid.

Newly announced candidate Rick Perry​ is the one most likely to be vocal on education. He already won over RedState's Erick Erickson for mouthing off against federal education policy and sparring with the Obama administration over its Race to the Top initiative. He also opposed efforts by Administration-aligned conservative school reformers to coax states into enacting new reading and math curricula standards. From where Perry sits, "Texas is on the right path toward improved education" and doesn't need Washington butting in on its work.

If only. Perry unfortunately takes federal school dollars where he sees fit (belying his conservative credentials) and most of the Lone Star State's gains in student progress occurred under predecessor Bush (who modeled No Child on his work as governor). During Perry's tenure, Texas has fallen behind more aggressive reform-minded states such as Florida in improving student progress, further undermining Perry's credibility on education.

But the silence on school reform among GOP candidates -- and their retreat from No Child itself -- is deafening. Even before Bush teamed up with Ted Kennedy and John Boehner in 2001 to pass No Child -- and despite pretensions that education should be a state and local responsibility -- Republicans (and conservatives) have been as aggressive as Democrats in expanding the federal role.

In 1958, President Dwight David Eisenhower successfully pushed for the passage of the first major expansion of federal education policy, the Cold War-prompted National Defense Education Act of 1958, which led to the first major wave of standardized testing. During the 1970s, Richard Nixon​ fought for further expansion, including the creation of what is now the Institute of Education Sciences, which administers NAEP, the federal test of student progress. And it was Ronald Reagan​ who ushered in the modern school reform movement in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk. Besides spurring the creation of some 250 state and local panels focused on improving teaching and expanding school choice, it would also begin a series of federal efforts that would culminate in school reform moves by George W. Bush's father and Bill Clinton​, including efforts to get states to embrace an early form of national curriculum standards.

Even now, there are plenty of Republicans, including Sandy Kress (who wrote No Child) and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who still support an expanded federal role in education. Congressional Republicans have also made sure to play their part in continuing a strong federal role, most recently in successfully reviving the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which was launched a decade ago by another generation of congressional Republicans.

There are also suburban Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, who try to appeal to movement conservatives with talk of reducing the federal role even as they push for higher levels of spending. Even as Kline has pushed to gut No Child's accountability rules (while complaining about the Obama administration's effort to do the very same thing), he has enthusiastically backed increasing the $11 billion the federal government ladles out to special education programs. The fact that special ed has helped fuel the nation's education crisis by labeling illiterate but otherwise capable young men as "learning disabled" has never factored into Kline's thinking.

Meanwhile, Republicans -- especially movement conservatives -- are vocally rejecting anything that seems to increase the federal role in education. Remember the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004? Progressive activists, frustrated that Bill Clinton turned out to be the Republicans' favorite Democrat, rebelled against any candidate who dared embrace Clinton's legacy. The current GOP campaign is shaped by that same kind of rebellion, this time against the excesses of Dubya's presidency (and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats' favorite Republican). Movement conservatives may be generally supportive of expanding vouchers and charter schools, two of the most-prominent elements of Bush's education policy. But the very concept of No Child itself -- especially its accountability provisions -- has always been viewed as federal overreach. Add the very presence of the U.S. Department of Education (whose abolishment has long been sought by conservative reformers), and the Obama administration's effort to require states to adapt Common Core reading and math standards in exchange for federal funding, and No Child becomes a dirty word.

In reality, No Child did little to expand the federal role, or even increase Washington's nine percent contribution to the $591 billion spent annually on schools. If anything, No Child actually signaled the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of education. Given that school districts, as local governments, are merely tools of state control, this has always been implied. But since the 1960s, successful efforts by teachers' unions to pass state laws forcing districts to bargain with them, along with school funding lawsuits and property tax reforms such as California's Proposition 13, have led to states taking a more prominent role in all aspects of education -- including picking up 48 cents of every dollar spent on schools.

No Child gives a lot of leeway to states when it comes to interpreting how to meet certain requirements, like the one assuring that all teachers be "highly qualified" for instruction. States may be required to improve graduation rates and test scores -- including the aspirational goal that all students are proficient in reading, math and science by 2014 -- but the federal government allows them to develop their own solutions in order to achieve them. The approach hasn't exactly worked out as Bush wanted, as states have figured out how to game the law's flexibility. But the law has shined a much-needed light on the abysmal quality of education throughout the country.

For reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle, No Child has proven to be the tool they need to beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. No Child, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans. This fact (along with the preoccupation with addressing the debt ceiling and healthcare reform) is why congressional Republicans haven't moved forward on revamping No Child.


Detroit: Raise education benchmarks now

Federal targets should be scrapped; state is on right track in hiking its own standards

Schools across the state are feeling the heat. Federal education requirements continue to increase while districts struggle to keep up, as recent data show. But parents and other stakeholders must brace themselves for additional poor scores as the Michigan Department of Education aims for higher testing standards on its own.

After comparatively good news last summer, this year's Adequate Yearly Progress numbers aren't sunny. Around 20 percent of Michigan's schools didn't make the objectives, which are key components of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The state Education Department says more schools failed to meet the provisions this past school year, despite overall improvements in test scores.

No Child demands 100 percent proficiency in key subjects by 2014, so states must raise standards each year to reach its unrealistic goal.

This time, 79 percent of schools and 93 percent of districts made Adequate Yearly Progress, down from 86 percent of schools and 95 percent of districts the previous school year. Detroit Public Schools, which met AYP last year with half of its schools reaching benchmarks, saw only a third of its 152 schools make it this year. Around 300 schools in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties did not meet the goals. To achieve yearly progress, schools are measured on a variety of factors, including attendance, English language arts and math scores and graduation rates. Schools also have to test 95 percent of students.

Education department officials weren't surprised by the drop as No Child requirements rose significantly last school year. In the 2009-10 school year, for example, schools needed to have 70 percent of third-grade students proficient in reading and 67 percent in math. Both of those targets rose by 8 percent this year.

Since each state sets its own proficiency benchmarks, some states have kept them low. Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center, says the No Child targets have actually encouraged states to lower their standards — the opposite of its intent. But states that have practically ignored the federal goals, such as Florida, have excelled by setting their own high proficiency and accreditation standards.

Michigan seeks to join these ranks. The State Board of Education has approved strengthening the measure of proficiency, and the board is expected to finalize the new requirements soon. State education officials recently applied for a waiver to the No Child requirements so schools wouldn't be punished as they're adjusting to tougher standards. The U.S. Department of Education is expecting other states to seek respite from the rising targets and has announced waivers in exchange for not-yet-released reform guidelines.

The waivers are a symptom of a bigger problem — after 10 years and billions of dollars, the No Child law hasn't worked.

The federal law should be scrapped. Michigan has a better answer: Raise its own standards and hold schools accountable for meeting them.


British bosses condemn 'useless' degrees which leave graduates unemployable because they lack basic skills

Millions of school leavers and graduates with 'fairly useless' degrees are unemployable because they lack basic skills, a major business lobby group will warn today. The devastating report, from the British Chambers of Commerce, reveals small businesses are frustrated at the quality of applicants, who they say can barely concentrate or add up.

Nearly half of the 2,000 firms surveyed said they would be 'fairly or very nervous' about hiring someone who has just finished their A-levels.

The report warns: 'Too many people [are] coming out with fairly useless degrees in non-serious subjects.' Its findings raise serious questions about the type and standard of education and skills training in Britain.

The group questioned the owners of 'micro-businesses', those with fewer than ten employees. Many have vacancies which they are desperate to fill but were scathing about the quality of candidates.

The report states: 'In general, younger people lack numerical skills, research skills, ability to focus and read, plus written English.'

One unnamed entrepreneur told researchers: 'Plenty of unemployed, mostly without experience in my sector. The interpersonal skills of some interviewed in the past have been very poor.'

Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the fault lies with the education system, not with the young people themselves. He said new courses spring up because there is demand from would-be students – but not necessarily from businesses.

Dr Marshall said: 'There may be a course in underwater basket weaving, but that does not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.' He cited the American television crime drama CSI as a prime example. It sparked a huge growth in the popularity of forensic science courses, but Dr Marshall said demand for these graduates is low.

He said: 'Despite high levels of unemployment, many micro-firms are frustrated by the quality of applicants for vacant roles. 'There is a real mismatch between business needs and local skills supply. Many businesses are unable to find school leavers or even graduates with the right mix of skills.'

Dr Marshall said he is desperate for the country to listen to business and create the right courses to fit the jobs that are available.

More than half micro-firms want to employ new workers over the next four years, but fear they will not be able to find suitable candidates. When asked how they do hire workers, many said they rely on their own family, personal contacts and people who have been recommended.

The report comes amid the growing ranks of business leaders attack Labour’s record on education and skills.

The former boss of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, described school standards as ‘woeful’ in 2009. His comments were echoed in the same year by former Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose, who said many school leavers were not ‘fit for work.’

Despite a doubling of spending on education since 2000, from £35.8billion to £71billion, Britain has plummeted down world rankings, according to the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: ‘We share the concerns of many businesses that too many of our young people leave school without the skills needed for work – in particular in the basics of English and maths. ‘It is good qualifications in these key subjects that employers demand before all others. That’s why we are prioritising them.’


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