The Hope: Create a Brighter Future
There is no doubt that NCLB needs a serious overhaul, and Rep. Miller is the first person to say so. "The law was a good beginning, but it needs to be rewritten for what we know now," he says. As members of Congress get started on those changes, they'll be relying on parents like you to help shape the future education of our nation's kids. Parenting is here to help you do just that. Check out "How You Can Make a Difference" (below) for all the easy ways to get started. In the meantime, every education group worth its .org address has published a wish list of changes for the new NCLB. The common theme is, "We believe in accountability, but, hey, our kids are not widgets, and our schools need more support, not more sanctions." We can't argue with that, but our demands do not end there. Congress, please listen up:
Fund the Bill in Full
Since 2002 Congress has appropriated $85 billion less into education than NCLB called for. And, yes, the stimulus infusion has been immensely helpful, but it's not enough. Simply put, you've been asking states, districts, schools, and teachers to do things they've never done, but with roughly the same resources, services, and class sizes as before (and in many districts, class sizes are only going up). If you really believe in these goals and want educators to succeed, pony up the cash.
Set Realistic -- and Common -- Standards
Start with looking at the real world and what's going to happen when students leave school. Will they be ready for college? If they choose work or the military, will they have the skills necessary for that? "Set that standard, and make the goal to get most kids there by the time they turn eighteen -- it doesn't have to be in fourth or eighth grade," says Petrilli. It's also critical to adopt common standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is working to do just that, and its effort to create "higher, clearer, and fewer" standards that are internationally benchmarked is worth more than cursory support.
Assess Students from All Sides
We know testing is never going away, nor should it. But we need those to be some darn good tests. Urge states toward stronger designs that ask students to show a depth of understanding, collaboration skills, and critical thought. Students should have to do something, like write an essay or build a model rocket, not just answer grammar and math questions. Listen to your Education Committee leader: "We need assessments that show more than superficial understanding of what students were told in class," says Rep. Miller. "We need to know if they can work out the problems, describe their knowledge, write about it, and conceptualize it." In the high-tech and biotech industries in his home state of California, he adds, "They want people who can work together to find solutions, not people who can memorize a fact. Multiple-choice tests, for the most part, just don't measure that."
Measure Individual Progress
Encourage states to use "growth models," that fancy term for figuring out how much each kid gains each year. They allow us to see how much each teacher contributes to each child's gains, as well as to reward hard-working educators for success. By committing to recognize kids as individuals, there will be no room for the nonsensical demand that every child -- however learning-challenged or new to our country -- pass the same exam.
Give Schools Added Flexibility
Of course it's crucial that there be consequences for schools that serve kids poorly. But the government can do better by providing a helping hand, not only an iron fist. Currently, there's only a short list of state- and federal-approved options for struggling schools to use to get better -- like California teacher Sokolsky's rigid reading program. And schools have to use them whether they missed AYP by an inch or a mile. The new law should allow schools to tailor their efforts to their particular needs.
Allow Teachers to Be the Best that They Can Be
Any mom can tell you that nothing affects a child's learning more than the caliber of the teacher in her classroom. The new law must continue to insist on training and rewards for teachers who get top results (gauged by more than test scores) and teach in the toughest schools. NCLB did set some minimum requirements for teachers, but having the right paperwork doesn't have much to do with how well they do their job. After all, the teachers we all remember fondly probably weren't the ones with the fanciest qualifications but those who were engaging, rigorous, and compassionate. Yet today, many of those educators feel forced to break the rules in order to give their classes everything they deserve. As the NEA's Eskelsen puts it, "When it's a rebellious act to be a good teacher, something's wrong."