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September 12, 2007

the Education Trust and the narrowing of the curriculum

When the Education Trust speaks, newspapers listen. Recently, I wrote to celebrate the new draft of legislation by Rep. George Miller that would broaden the way schools can demonstrate satisfactory progress. Mr. Miller, the leader of the House Democrats on education policy, would allow schools to measure outcomes in subjects like civics, not just reading and math. There are strong opponents of this reform. Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, writes:

No federal education law has been more misunderstood than No Child Left Behind. But despite all the complaints, no federal law has accomplished more for the poor and minority children historically shortchanged by our education system.

While we continue to press for closing the achievement gap and preparing all students for the real-world challenges of college and career, the federal law must maintain a laser-like focus on ensuring that all students are proficient in reading and math. Congress should resist calls to add more measures to the current accountability system that would provide "extra credit" for schools failing to meet the needs of their students in these two fundamental subject areas.

The "adequate yearly progress" standard was designed to be easily understood by parents, educators and policymakers. The clarity of the accountability system shouldn't be muddied by variables that let schools off the hook for poor performance in reading and math, even for just one group of students. Instead, Congress should provide funding for the additional supports and resources that research has identified as critical to academic success -- strong, effective teachers empowered by rich curricula tied to high-quality assessments of student learning -- and target those resources to the schools that need the most help.

The Washington Post masthead editorial echoes her, whether intentionally or not. So does Fred Hiatt in his Post column, and the New York Times in two masthead editorials. The first:

The country’s largest teachers’ union, the politically powerful National Education Association, would like to see the law gutted. Fortunately, the chairman of the House education committee, George Miller, Democrat of California, has resisted those pressures. Even so, his proposed changes in the law’s crucial accountability provisions, put forth in a draft version of the House bill, may need to be recast to prevent states from backing away from the central mission of the law.

Some critics warn that one provision might allow schools to mask failures in bedrock subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on so-called alternate indicators.

And the Times repeats these points today, citing the President of the Business Roundtable, John Castellani, who testified against "troubling provisions in a draft reauthorization bill that would allow schools to mask failure in teaching crucial subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on alternate measures of performances."

The position of the The Education Trust and Business Roundtable has a legitimate place in the debate. But there is certainly another side, which the Times and Post ought to consider. Considerable evidence now shows that: (a) schools are cutting important subjects to meet the federal testing requirements in reading and math; and (b) students aren't really reading or understanding math better when they perform better on the required tests. In fact, the more a state improves its scores on the NCLB-required tests, the more its scores fall on other, independent assessments of literacy and math. Students would actually read better if they knew some history and civics and had a sense of why it is important to be able to read the news and write about social issues.

September 12, 2007 10:15 AM | category: education policy | Comments


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