A few years back, as states started getting nervous about No Child Left Behind holding them responsible for their students meeting their states' educational standards, officials started fiddling with their collars and asking for more breathing room, even a weakening of standards. Now comes the Obama administration, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is floating the idea of giving up on the law's goal of seeing how many students in each school are making significant progress each year. He also has suggested Congress give up the goal of children being proficient in their subjects by 2014, calling it "utopian."
If the administration has its way with these two changes, let's be honest: Our nation will be giving up on kids, especially the many poor and minority children stuck in failing schools. We will be saying, "We don't think you can learn at grade level, and we don't think we should ask you to achieve at an academic rate that will prepare you for a complicated world."
That's the hard, cold reality. So if we decide to go down that road, let's be realistic about what we are doing.
Now, that said, there are certainly ways and places to improve No Child Left Behind, which was passed nine years ago with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. No law is sacred, and there are ways to improve this one. Here are a few:
--Allow states to show progress with their students, even if not all are proficient. In short, let them distinguish between the improving ones and the terrible ones.
That's called "differentiated consequences," and it's a concept that Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings used to let states show they were making progress, just not enough. The idea allows schools to keep working with struggling students without being put on a black list.
--Make sure each state's standards prepare kids to graduate from high school with the skills for either a good trade job or college. Duncan talks about college/career readiness being a new goal, so pursue it, as Texas did in adopting a new school accountability system in 2009.
But let's be specific about what these terms mean and what we expect kids to do to earn that recognition. Fuzziness will not help them compete in a world where other nations are rushing to become the next global economic powers.
--Give states more money to improve low-performing campuses. This is a no-brainer, as long as the concept is more money and strong standards. If it is more money and less accountability, this reform will make no sense.
--Extend the date that states must have their students learning at grade level. The 2014 goal was good because it let states take their entering kindergarteners in 2002, when the law kicked in, and get them to grade level by the time they walked across the stage to collect high school diplomas in 2014.
If Duncan and Congress believe that's too difficult, kick it back a few years. Just don't give up on it.
Duncan talked about some of these changes in a recent New York Times article, but he offered few details. Evidently, he thinks that's something he and Congress will work on over the next few months.
What we need to hear are those details. This isn't about No Child per se, but the concepts in the landmark bill. If there's a way to build on the idea of measuring students annually and seeing whether they are being left behind, let's do it. But if that's not what's going on here, let's be honest with the students in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and everyplace else.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; e-mail: email@example.com