The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:
It's a good bet that sometime in the next few months Congress will send the president an education bill more or less to his liking, which he will sign. The event will be portrayed as a major political accomplishment, and to some extent that will be so; the politicians will have risen above the usual partisanship. Whether the political feat will have significant educational impact is less clear.
The federal government plays a limited role in elementary and secondary education. Federal funds cover only about 7 percent of public school costs, and neither national party wants to be perceived as interfering with traditional state and local control of schools. When Congress legislates, usually it is doing no more than attaching conditions to the receipt of federal funds, which neither party has any intention of cutting off. That's a pretty oblique way of trying to achieve reform.
The current legislation reauthorizes, and tweaks in various ways, the main forms of federal aid to education. The tweaking is the issue. Most federal aid is supposed to be used to help the poor. Critics say that over the 35 years it has been given, it hasn't helped that much. Defenders reply that's partly because there's been too little control of its use. Now the president also is saying the government should make sure the money is well spent.
Up to a point, the parties thus find themselves in agreement on an issue that in past years has divided them. At the president's urging, both houses have passed bills calling for annual testing of children in grades three through eight to see if they are proficient in reading and math, or are making acceptable progress toward proficiency as defined by the states. If not -- if the children fail -- the bill requires that their schools and/or school districts be held "accountable."
We favor the effort; the schools need the prodding. Some do a decent job, but too many are mediocre or worse. Too often the children they fail to help are the ones who need the help the most. But it's easier to create accountability on paper than in fact, and in some respects these bills seem too prescriptive; it is possible to imagine them doing more harm than good.
They set up a three-tier purgatory. A school that failed to meet state standards would first be gently labeled as in need of "school improvement"; in effect it would be given a warning plus extra help to raise its scores. If that failed, the next step would be a period of "corrective action" -- perhaps some personnel and other changes together with a partial shift of control to higher authority -- followed if necessary by "reconstitution." The school district or state would somehow deconstruct the school and start over -- replace all or most of the staff, convert it into a charter school, who knows what.
And that's the issue; no one does quite know. If people knew how to fix the schools -- not the occasional school but troubled schools on a mass basis -- they would have done it long ago. That's one reason we favored something that didn't make it into the bill: giving at least a few districts or states a chance to experiment with vouchers and competition in districts that for decades have resisted improvement.
The bill instead opts for better information and the pressure such information could generate. In places this may well degenerate into an elaborate rubber-stamping and bookkeeping exercise -- a chronicling of failure -- in which schools and school districts mainly struggle to avoid labels they likely deserve. Even avoiding that pitfall, the bill now being rewritten in conference will be in essence a mostly hortatory change in federal law -- a long way from reform of the schools.
Still, if the tests are apt and the results are clearly reported -- no hiding behind composites or averages or ranges to blur what the schools are achieving -- the system these bills envision could be useful. It would add to the pressure on school officials and communities to fix the schools -- that's the intent -- and would focus the pressure on the lowest-performing schools, which tend to be those serving the children most in need, whom the federal programs are mainly meant to serve. We hope they pass such a measure, but we'd hold the celebration.
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