Leaving behind No Child not so easy to do
While politicians squabble over furlough Fridays, they'd better be on board for a much bigger challenge — the reworking of the No Child Left Behind Education Act of 2002.
It's hard to imagine a more pervasive, or maligned, federal education initiative than NCLB. Nonetheless, the Obama administration's blueprint for change, while addressing some key criticisms of NCLB, won't make it easier on Hawai'i's struggling public schools. It will pose new challenges to the most hidebound and controversial aspect of Hawai'i's statewide system: teacher accountability.
Yes, those pesky "adequate yearly progress" standards, which proved inadequate, would go away. But they would be replaced by a new, broader goal to make all students college and career-ready by 2020. The blueprint also calls for more sophisticated data systems to measure student performance. And it would use those measurements to hold educators, including teachers and principals, accountable for a student's progress.
This will require a major demonstration of faith from that staunch defender of the status quo, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has resisted everything from drug testing to pay cuts to ease the pain of furlough Fridays. Rightfully so, the blueprint demands that the kids come first.
The reforms would also clamp down on chronically under-performing schools, requiring tough sanctions that range from from replacing principals and staff to closures. This could put severe pressure on Hawai'i's lowest performing schools, which are often in poor, rural Neighbor Island locations where it's hard to keep staff, much less raise standards. School officials — and parents, who should know that education begins with them — will have to invest the time and effort necessary to make sure their neighborhood schools don't fall behind.
Other aspects of Obama's plan sensibly address some of the shortfalls in No Child. The plan would be more flexible in judging a school's success, measuring its progress rather than its fulfillment of the rote pass-fail requirements. The reforms would also abandon the unreachable goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, opting instead for a more nuanced measurement that includes progress in other important subjects like history and science. And success will bring a school district greater financial rewards and more freedom from federal supervision.
Ultimately, Congress must take Obama's blueprint and build the final structure. But even the most sensible federal policy will fail if Hawai'i's school system can't rise to the challenge. Efforts to improve the odds by making the lines of accountability clearer — through an appointed school board, or a superintendent chosen by the governor — are making their way through the Legislature this year. The Department of Education is also pushing ahead with some of these reforms through its second Race to the Top application.
These are promising beginnings. We've seen them before. What has been missing is follow-through — from politicians, educators, union leaders and parents, working together so no child is left behind.