Federal education law is still failing schools, students

It's time for Congress to gut the 'No Child Left Behind' law and start over.

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The nation's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, told Congress last week that the "No Child Left Behind" law is broken. President Obama essentially said the same thing Monday.

This is hardly a revelation.

The 2001 law set standards for student achievement and then (at least theoretically) held school officials accountable for meeting those standards. Well, those standards have been a moving target over the last decade and accountability has been lacking. The federal government's effort to oversee the education system administered by the 50 states has been ineffective.

The "No Child Left Behind Act" aims to use carrots and sticks -- giving money or taking money away -- to push schools to exceed the federal standards.

Unfortunately, few schools anywhere are meeting those standards. Last week the Obama administration estimated 82 percent of the nation's public schools could fall short of meeting the federal standards.

Yikes!

Duncan feels the same way. And now he's asking Congress to change -- as in lower -- the standards so that only the schools most in need of help would be labeled as failing.

Generally we would find this to be an unacceptable solution. But given the roller coaster-like path "No Child Left Behind" has taken to get to this point, what he suggests makes sense.

Last year 37 percent of schools met the goals. The Department of Education had calculated all schools should improve at a rate of the schools in the top 25 percent. Those calculations raised the bar significantly and thus made it extremely difficult for schools to succeed.

"This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it, and fix it this year," Duncan told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk."

Adding to the problem is the Great Recession, which has reduced state funding for a great many school districts. Cuts are being made at school districts across the country as states attempt to balance their budgets.

Given that, the federal government's assessment is the least of the concerns for state and local education officials. The money from the federal government nevertheless is important, even critical, for local school districts.

Congress does need to start over. Let's hope this time lawmakers and education officials learn from the past mistakes.

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