Thomas Toch & Douglas Harris, via a kind reader’s email:
George W. Bush rode to the White House pledging high standards for all students. He’ll leave Washington with the nation’s public education system focused on teaching basic skills to disadvantaged student populations, with the United States lagging in international comparisons of educational attainment, and with his signature education law plagued by so many problems and mired in so much controversy that it has put at serious risk two decades of work to improve public schooling by making educators accountable for their students’ success.
The most important thing Barack Obama or John McCain could do quickly to salvage the accountability movement is change the way that the federal No Child Left Behind Act judges schools. Not by abandoning NCLB’s focus on students’ meeting standards, a move that would be unwise on both policy and political grounds, but by making the law a more legitimate report card of school performance, one that provides a fair and accurate gauge of educators’ contribution to their students’ achievement. Since its inception, NCLB has instead held schools responsible for factors they can’t control and perversely encouraged states to set standards low.
It’s critical in any accountability system that the metrics used to judge performance reflect accurately the contributions of those being judged. In education, that means measuring how much progress a school’s students make during the school year, a “value added” approach that accounts for the disadvantages (or advantages) students may bring to school because of the quality of prior instruction or their family backgrounds. It’s a strategy that pressures schools working with disadvantaged students to work hard in their students’ behalf without penalizing educators for taking on tough assignments. And it’s a strategy that doesn’t reward rich schools merely for having privileged students.