Congress took a potentially transformative step when it devoted $100 billion in the stimulus package to education. Carefully targeted, this money could revive the reform efforts that began promisingly with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 — but later languished when his administration buckled under to political pressures from state officials.
Arne Duncan, the new education secretary, will need to resist those pressures. The Bush administration allowed states to phony-up statistics on everything from graduation rates to student achievement to teacher training and state education standards. As a result, the country has yet to reach not only the goals that were clearly laid out in the law but also farsighted education reforms dating to the mid-1990s.
The stimulus package, including a $54 billion “stabilization” fund to protect schools against layoffs and budget cuts, is rightly framed to encourage compliance. States will need to create data collection systems that should ideally show how children perform year to year as well as how teachers affect student performance over time. States will also be required to improve academic standards as well as the notoriously weak tests now used to measure achievement — replacing, for instance, the pervasive fill-in-the-bubble tests with advanced assessments that better measure writing and thinking.