The New York Times has an excellent article on the Bush brothers’ differing approaches to school improvement. W, as President, ushered in a sweeping change in 2001 known as “No Child Left Behind,” which mandates that all students will demonstrate proficiency by 2014. Failure to meet milestones along the way leads to progressively more punitive sanctions, which can lead to the replacement of a school’s entire staff, or even to takeover of the school by the state.
Jeb, as Governor of Florida, also implemented standards-based reform in his state, but with different methods and incentives: rather than tracking a school’s progress from year to year, it tracks the progress of individual students. Rather than punishment, it offers financial rewards to the schools that excel. Improvement is rewarded, even if it misses the target mark in NCLB.
At last night’s Oak Ridge school board meeting, we reviewed our students’ test scores — and they’re very good. We obviously have a school system to be proud of. However, we also heard from Mark Diemer, who teaches special ed at the elementary level; while he has no problem pushing his students to excel, while he is able to clearly document that they are progressing and learning, knowing that if too many of his students don’t meet the proficiency standard, his whole school could be punished, is extremely stressful.
Mark is a great teacher; year after year he brings his students to their personal best. Who could ask any more?
Remember, we’re talking about children with learning disabilities — some of them very significant. IDEA forced the mainstreaming of students who, due to birth defects or brain damage, have little realistic hope of ever performing at the level of their peers. Holding them to the same standards as everyone else is sort of like telling me (at 5’4″) to go out and compete in the NBA… just because Earl Boykins (5’5″) did it doesn’t mean we all can. i sure can’t.
I support accountability in the public schools based on criterion-referenced testing, and I believe that NCLB has caused us to use testing as a tool for improvement by studying the disaggregated data to identify gaps in learning. It’s working, and improvment is evident. Still, we will never attain 100% perfection when our obligation is to accept all students. In the case of graduation rate standards, the ruling that all students must graduate within four years actually pits the school’s best interest against the student’s best interest in situations where a student would benefit by repeating a grade.
NCLB is up for reauthorization next year; it’s time to make some changes.