Let's Keep the No Child Left Behind Act

There are many calls from many states to change the federal No Child Left Behind Act — or even ditch it. But others believe the law is working and worth keeping.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Despite the calls to change No Child Left Behind, or even ditch it, commentator Andrew Rotherham says the law is working and is worth keeping. He's co-director of a think tank called Education Sector.

ANDREW ROTHERHAM: As a rule, industries don't reform themselves. It's why we have a Securities and Exchange Commission and a Federal Aviation Administration. When it comes to schools, the problem is not that educators do not have good intentions. On the contrary, they overwhelmingly do. But good intentions are not enough. Any successful industry needs to organize itself around performance.

No Child Left Behind attempts to do that. It requires states to set specific targets for school performance and deal with low performers. Despite the rhetoric from the law's critic that it is too tough, the performance goals are not all that unreasonable.

Today, in most states, only about seven in ten students at most need to pass their state's tests in order for a school to meet the targets. And some states, it's less than half of students. And many state tests are not all that challenging to begin with.

Some criticisms of the law are valid and the problems can be fixed. No Child Left Behind does force schools to focus too much on reading and math when most Americans want the public schools to do more than just teach those subjects. And states have been slow to really intervene in struggling schools. So many educators understand that we're frustrated that demands to improve have not been accompanied by more help to do so.

But Congress can address those issues in the policy. More support for state efforts to turn around struggling schools or open new public schools is vital, and Congress can encourage states to measure performance in more subjects than just math and reading.

The more complicated problem confronting Congress is political. Any meaningful accountability requirements are going to show that a lot of schools need to do better. Minority students trail white students by, on average, four grade levels in achievement by high school. Meanwhile, only one in two minority students finishes high school on time. Those students do go to school somewhere and it's not just in the big cities.

But education special interest groups would prefer not to lay that reality bare. They worry that calling attention to these problems and publicly identifying schools that have to improve will erode support for public schools while increasing support for ideas like school vouchers. But they have it backwards. It is inattention to the problems that No Child Left Behind is pointing out that is the biggest threat facing the public schools.

Now, Congress has a choice. They can continue to play the role of tough regulator or bend to pressure to take the teeth out of the law. Look, there will be winners and losers. Lawmakers cannot please everyone. But these are tough questions about school reform and require tough choices.

NORRIS: Andrew J. Rotherham is co-director of think tank called Education Sector. He's also a member of the Virginia Board of Education and he writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

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