This week the House of Representatives will vote on the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act. This is the first in a series of bills that the House Education and Workforce Committee is considering as part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
While this is a good first step, the law is overdue for updating. After all, we know a lot more today about what’s working in our schools and what’s not than we did a decade ago. The knowledge we’ve gained in the 10 years since this law has been on the books needs to be reflected in the final bill that emerges from the Congress.
Like it or hate it, the law has been a game-changer. It’s opened the public’s eyes about the hard work that needs to be done about underperforming school systems that are jeopardizing the future success of countless students. For decades, our educational system operated in the dark. Not anymore. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that what we know is far from encouraging. There is still a significant achievement gap between minority and white students. For a nation as wealthy and strong as America, it’s a disgrace that only 75 percent of students, and only half of all minority students, graduate from high school on time. What’s even more shocking than these statistics is the ongoing and persistent complaining by some adults in the system that it is simply unrealistic to expect kids to read and cypher on grade level! A modest standard that many of these same people argue is too low.
Teaching our young students the basics is the bare minimum we should be providing to put them on the path to being successful productive citizens. I have yet to meet a parent who said it was acceptable for his or her child not to be on grade level now. Many will tell you that the dozen years that No Child Left Behind provided schools to accomplish this minimum of standards was too generous. As well, I have yet to meet a CEO who is looking to hire graduates without the necessary skills or knowledge to be successful on the job. It’s ludicrous for Americans to think that continuing down a path of low expectations is going to net the kind of gains we need to stay competitive.
The question is whether policymakers will continue to side with parents who believe the school systems they finance through their hard-earned tax dollars have an obligation to educate their children, or cave in to the teachers’ unions and other powerful special interests who are willing to write off some of the nation’s neediest children, believing they are simply too hard to educate. If it’s the latter, America will be the loser.
The time has come for policymakers to face the music. We need to pick up the pace of improvement in our schools. States should have the authority to design their own accountability systems. Instead of the current "pass/fail" approach in the law today, states should be allowed to use a grading system based on solid data to identify which schools need the most immediate help - something most were not in a position to do when the law was written. The law should also identify and reward our most effective teachers who are doing the hard work every day to raise student achievement and close the stubborn achievement gap.
Finally, in the absence of a reauthorization, one of the tools the Secretary of Education can utilize to make adjustments is through waivers, but they must be used with caution. During my tenure as Secretary, I received countless requests for waivers, too often from states looking to avoid consequences under the law. I rejected such requests and believe Secretary Arne Duncan should do the same. Most of these requests urge either greater delay for action or lower expectations for our schools. They won't improve education and will lead to a slippery slope on accountability. If any waiver request fails to advance the best interests of children, it should be rejected. For if it doesn’t improve learning for children, why would we even consider it?
Margaret Spellings was the Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009, during which time she led the implementation of No Child Left Behind. She is currently president and CEO of Margaret Spellings & Company.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.