Mr. Fix-It

Though it's not the fundamental rethinking of No Child Left Behind that we would have preferred, the President's reauthorization proposal represents a pretty decent repair attempt. It's 50% "stay the course," 30% "tweak and tuck," and 20% "bold new ideas." Not bad for a president with 33% approval ratings, though the package as a whole has about a 0% chance of getting through Congress. In its entirety, it deserves a B-minus for addressing some of NCLB's greatest shortcomings. (No grade inflation here.) Let's break it down:

  • Expanding parental choice: So what if most of these ideas don't have a prayer of getting past Chairmen Kennedy and Miller; they are worth a fight (and worth advocating in presidential campaigns, hint, hint). The best of the lot is a proposal to use federal dollars to replicate the D.C. voucher program in willing cities. Note, though, that the "city" doesn't have to apply, much less the school system. A willing non-profit could broker the entire program in a community--and manage the federal dollars. Through this mechanism, and by seeking volunteer communities, the plan avoids two fundamental problems with NCLB choice: first, putting entities (school districts) in charge of a reform they don't believe in, and second, promising parents options but doing nothing to expand supply. Other choice-related ideas are praiseworthy, too: offering free tutoring to students in the first year of "school improvement" instead of the second; boosting the tutoring allotment for rural students and those with disabilities or limited English proficiency; requiring districts to spend their entire set-aside for public school choice and free tutoring or watch it go away ("use it or lose it")--which incentivizes them to reach out to parents whole-heartedly; and tweaking the charter school assistance program to focus as much on school quality as charter quantity. The one problematic notion would allow schools to restrict public school choice and tutoring to students below "proficiency," as long as the school as a whole is meeting its goals and parents are informed of their options at least thirty days before the start of the school year. Talk about a perverse incentive for students to flub the test!  Grade: A

  • Curbing Washington micromanagement: One of the most important ideas in the entire blueprint is expanding NCLB's "transferability provision." This proposal would allow districts the flexibility to dump much of their federal funding into one big pot to be used at their discretion, and could greatly reduce the red tape that currently drives local administrators crazy. As for the "highly qualified teachers" mandate--which has turned into not much more than a paperwork compliance exercise--the proposal is eerily silent. I'll interpret that to mean that the Administration wouldn't mind it going away, but you have to fight that fight, too, if you want an A on this score. Grade: B
  • Getting tough with failing schools: The Administration's ideas here are a smart mix of more flexibility and less flexibility. On the one hand, they would allow superintendents to ignore collective bargaining agreements when it comes to chronically low-performing schools, to bust any charter school cap their state might have in place, and to hand these schools over to the mayor if they please. On the other hand, they would limit the "restructuring" options available to districts, requiring a major overhaul of bad schools, not just minor adjustments. Why not a higher grade? Simply put, it's not clear that Uncle Sam has the ability to enforce any of this, regardless of what ends up in federal statute. Grade: B-
  • Creating a workable, rigorous standards-and-accountability system: Most importantly, the proposal would allow any state to use a "growth model" in its accountability system, as long as it can meet the stringent requirements spelled out in Secretary Spellings's pilot. That means giving credit to schools with lots of poor kids who are making great strides towards "proficiency" but aren't there yet, while avoiding a free-for-all that eliminates a sense of urgency. Plus, if done right, growth models could give incentives to schools to pay attention to students already at or above proficiency. The proposal also calls for America Diploma Project-like standards at the high school level that link coursework to college and workplace expectations. Still, the state standards at the heart of NCLB are likely to remain perilously low, as the Administration declined to embrace any version of national standards. Its idea to require states to disclose their NAEP proficiency rates on their school report cards is clever, and might slightly retard the "race to the bottom," but it certainly won't create a race to the top. Grade: C+ 
  • Addressing the "narrowing of the curriculum": Here, the Administration really deserves two grades: An "A" for asking that the results of science tests to be included in schools' Adequate Yearly Progress ratings, and an "F" for leaving out history tests altogether. As this recent paper by Marty West showed, states that test in these subjects spend more time teaching them. Maybe the new NAEP history results (due out this spring and expected to be depressing) will spur some interest in adding history to the mix. Grade: C
  • All and all, not so shabby for the first comprehensive proposal out of the gate. Chairman Miller, Chairman Kennedy, and the No Child Left Behind Commission: now it's your turn. Let's see if you can jump to the head of the class.

    "Bush Proposes Broadening the No Child Left Behind Act," by Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, January 25, 2007  

    More By Author