Repeal 'No Child,' leave education reform to experts


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It looks as if the do-nothing Congress might actually get something done through common-ground on education reform — well, next year, anyway.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced that a bill he has cosponsored to reform many portions of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law would arrive on the U.S. Senate floor in 2012. Harkin agrees with many educators and experts in the field who believe that No Child Left Behind did a huge disservice to the progression of elementary and secondary education by enforcing impractical standards.

State governments know their school systems better than the federal government, and thus, they know better how to address any of the systems' shortcomings — that much people seem to agree upon. Using the same logic, school districts know how to address their problems better than the state government.

Thus, individual school districts should be the responsible parties in optimizing their students' futures — with some government oversight. With the amount of time left for the bill to reach Congress, this should be researched and considered.

The bill would do away with annual performance tests for students — a much-needed first step. As the law stands, these performance tests determine the levels of federal funding that public schools receive.

Peter Hlebowitsh, the chairman of the Teaching and Learning Department of the University of Iowa College of Education, believes that the ties between federal subsidies and performance exams should be ended as soon as possible.

"You don't want to tie a test to high-stakes consequences because tests are, by nature, fallible," he said.

Since the law's passing, teachers have had to abandon their traditional ways of teaching and instead have had to focus on having their students pass standardized tests.

Thus, such provisions give school districts financial incentive to disregard every other subject — social studies, science, the fine arts, music, physical education, and more.

In addition, because these subsidies are so important to many public schools that rely upon them to stay open, states often have a "race to the bottom" when it comes to standard-setting. The current law allows states to set their own standards to allow some sort of localized control, since, traditionally, states know their populations best. If the standards are set low enough for a given state, there is little reason to worry about a denial of federal funding.

As many have noted, for these reasons, No Child Left Behind is widely regarded as a disaster. Hlebowitsh agrees.

"The accountability system is largely ineffective because of the clash between federal policy and different state standards," he said. "The system is largely a failure."

Another provision of the Harkin bill would replace the annual performance tests with college- and workplace-readiness exams for high-school students. Students are often unprepared for entering the radically different environments of higher education and the workplace, in which instructors and supervisors are far more demanding than in high school.

Hlebowitsh also said that if the structure were to be more decentralized, he would like to see a system more like Britain's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services, and Skills system, in which school inspectors evaluate both state and independent schools to ensure a certain set of benchmarks. Moreover, he suggested, "if people are concerned about standards, they should look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam as a replacement."

There have been numerous campaigns against this ill-advised regulation — including the National Education Association — and they seem to have finally caught the attention of our leaders in Washington. Many on the left and the right agree that No Child Left Behind has done harm to American education and want to put an end to it.

Because of the more significant problems of economic stagnation, expanding government debt, and, frankly, re-election campaigns, the issue won't be brought to a vote for a few months. But Congress must not set this issue to the side when the time comes. It is one of the most consequential issues our country will face in the next few years.

Hlebowitsh believes that Harkin's bill is a good step in the right direction, but he realizes there is a long way to go.

"While No Child Left Behind should be credited for bringing attention to the achievement gap, any system that allows districts to design their own system is a better one," he said.

Let's hope our elected officials at least look into such a measure when the subject is debated in 2012.

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