Local: Education

Fixing NCLB: So much to do, so little time

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Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
President Obama is calling for a fix of the No Child Left Behind law before the moment in 2014 when 100 percent of our public schools would be "failing." Although well intentioned, the goal of 100 percent proficiency was never going to occur unless the tests became so easy as to be meaningless.

The law has had some good effects, including increased focus on underperforming groups, and an effort to create more meaningful assessment tools (as tests are now called). But the ill effects have been damaging: decreased school and teacher morale in nearly every part of the country.

What kids are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. Information on the books below came from Amazon.com's list of children's books; they are listed in order of popularity.
Best-sellers in educational children's books
1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Baby-Preschool)
2. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O'Malley (Young adult)
3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd (Baby-Preschool)
4. The Night Before St. Patrick's Day (Reading Railroad) by Natasha Wing and Amy Wummer (Ages 4-8)
5. The Going-To-Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (Baby-Preschool)
6. Beautiful Demons (Peachville High Demons) by Sarra Cannon (Teens)
7. Moo Baa La La La by Sandra Boynton (Baby-Preschool)
8. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle (Baby-Preschool)

Fear of being labeled a "failing" school when subgroups fall short of the yearly testing target created paranoia in the school where I taught for 16 years -- one of the highest achieving schools in Virginia. Each year we would watch a doom-and-gloom PowerPoint presentation showing how narrowly we had averted disaster, and what we would have to do to replicate that feat.

Mostly it was a matter of a handful of students, but any principal whose school falls short has to undergo the third degree from the central office, and considerable not-so-funny ribbing from fellow principals until the "failure" is corrected. Missing the year's target is every principal's nightmare.

Special education and English as a second language teachers in particular have been under scrutiny. At one time, students with learning disabilities were allowed to compile portfolios instead of taking standardized tests, but that was phased out as too lenient. The reality has grown increasingly clear over the years: There will never be a time when 100 percent of a school's subgroups will pass a battery of standardized tests. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 80 percent of the nation's schools will fail to meet their targets this year, three years before the 2014 100 percent goal.

The time has come to institute a new law guiding our educational future. Replacing the requirement for 100 percent compliance by a certain date in the future, President Obama proposes that states should institute more flexible goals, and "smarter" tests that will not be merely fill-in-the-bubble. (That might even mean portfolios of work could be used to measure progress in some students with learning disabilities who perform poorly on standardized tests.)

There will continue to be financial incentives for states to adopt plans to increase the number of highly qualified teachers in classrooms, and to provide college and career readiness for all students, along with increased high school graduation rates. Additionally, schools in districts that have persistently lagged behind because of their rural location or low socio-economic population will be targeted for more technology to keep those schools in touch with national standards and allow students to take Advanced Placement and other specialized courses online.

Who would argue with those common-sense reforms? Our senators and congressmen will argue -- that's who! It's so easy to let educational reform slide since children and their parents don't hire lobbyists or shout as loudly as others competing for scarce congressional dollars. We need to bury NCLB and find a bipartisan way to put common sense back into educational law. And we need to find a way to fund educational mandates, as well.

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ejacob1@gmu.edu.

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