Opinion: State-Based Education Reform Needs Tough Common Standards

Marion Herbert's picture
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Barack Obama administration has begun issuing long-awaited waivers giving states some flexibility in complying with the No Child Left Behind education law. But with the exception of politicians, educators and parents in the 11 states that have received them, nobody seems very pleased with the changes.

Advocates for the disadvantaged raise concerns that poor and minority children will be forgotten under the new regime, which will allow approved states to set their own benchmarks on school performance and improvement. Conservatives say the conditions attached are a new federal intrusion into states’ prerogatives. And Washington politicians of both parties claim that the executive branch has overstepped its bounds.

The good news is that all of these concerns are overstated. The bad news is that the waivers, issued by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, will do little to promote much-needed comprehensive reform in American public schools.

The goal of NCLB -- not actually a new law but an ambitious 2002 re-authorization of the Lyndon B. Johnson-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- was to use federal money as a carrot and sanctions as a stick to push states to set high standards for school improvement and establish concrete measures of student performance. By this yardstick, it has been a qualified success.

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