Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bush and Kennedy Agree...

With the war in Iraq continuing, the Presidential election in full swing and the economy becoming more and more worrisome, it may seem a little odd for me to write on public education right now. But I like to use this blog to raise issues that are very important but not sexy enough to get the attention they deserve in the mainstream media. So here goes...

Shortly after taking office in 2001, George W. Bush chose public education as his first domestic policy initiative. He reached across the aisle to none other than Senator Edward Kennedy to develop a bipartisan bill known today as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Today, the collaborative spirit that produced that law is dead and gone. Most people do not even remember that it ever existed.

The NCLB law is up for renewal this year. In the years since its passage, it has been labeled as a Bush Administration initiative. As a sad consequence, it is now more controversial than ever before. Some influential Democrats have called for the law to be scrapped altogether.

This would be a big mistake.

The law certainly has flaws - but I challenge any one to name a law developed by the United States Congress that does not. The goal should be to revise and improve the law - not to abandon it altogether.

Why should we keep this law?

NCLB takes several meaningful steps to improve public education. Perhaps the most controversial (and most important) is to require annual reading and mathematics testing for each and every 3rd to 8th grade student in all American public schools.

This data is used to evaluate the performance of teachers and schools - introducing a measure of accountability for educators based on student outcomes. In fact, some portion of federal funding is actually tied to schools improving the results of their students over time.

Many find this measure highly controversial. Some claim that the testing regime promotes a "teaching to the test" mentality. Others have produced evidence that schools are minimizing (or totally eliminating) time spent on subjects likes social studies (which is not tested under NCLB) in order to focus exclusively on reading and math.

These criticisms are totally valid and must be addressed.

But the answer is NOT to completely eliminate the real element of accountability NCLB has introduced. Accountability is critical for any human organization to function effectively. Of course, how we implement a given accountability system is tremendously important. That being the case, we should reform our methods as we learn more - not eliminate them completely.

If you want to learn more about your own Senators or Representatives - look up their stance on this law. If they are committed to furthering one of our nation's top priorities, then they should be advocating reform of this bill. If they are a Democrat looking to score easy political points, they will probably be voting to let the law lapse. (If they have no public opinion, they need to find another job).

You can learn more about the law (including more of its pros and cons) here.

You can read Senator Kennedy's most recent defense of NCLB here.

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