NCLB reform offers students brighter future
New law returns flexibility to the states and maintains high academic standards, assessments and accountability.
By Thomas J. Donohue and Cornell Brooks
December 16, 2015 – 1:28 p.m. EST
If there is any issue in Washington that should transcend partisan division and disagreement and draw the common support of lawmakers, interest groups and the public, it’s ensuring that every young American has access to a high-quality education. It is the foundation of opportunity and the springboard for the American Dream, and it is the key to our collective future. But too many of our nation’s young people are failing to achieve their potential, and African-American students are disproportionately impacted by the shortcomings in our education system.
While long overdue, we were encouraged to see a bipartisan deal emerge to update the federal government’s largest elementary and secondary education program. In 2002, President George W. Bush sought to address what he called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” through the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This landmark and sometimes controversial law called for higher standards and greater accountability.
Because of the bipartisan law’s focus on the academic achievement of all American students as well as recent advances by the Obama administration, there have been some positive developments. Today, our nation’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, with Black and Hispanic students making double-digit improvements and the number of high school “dropout factories” almost cut in half. We are also seeing gains in student academic achievement, particularly for racial and ethnic minority students, as well as an uptick in college participation.
This progress is encouraging, but the problem is far from solved. On the 2015 National Assessment for Educational Progress, only 18% of African-American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading and only 19% scored proficient in math. The eighth-grade numbers are even more disheartening, with just 16% of African-American students rated proficient in reading and an abysmal 13% rated proficient in math. Of those who go on to postsecondary education, nearly 40% of students in 4-year colleges and a whopping 67% of students in two-year colleges need to take remedial classes. Without a foundation of basic skills, many go on to struggle in the workforce. Consequently, combined with additional work opportunity challenges, one in five young African-Americans are unemployed, even while a record5.4 million jobs are unfilled due in part to a growing skills gap.
Several key provisions are included in the bipartisan agreement to update ESEA. Importantly, the conference agreement requires that states have academic standards in place that reflect what students need to know in order to be college and career ready. Additionally, it maintains annual state assessments in math and reading as well as grade span assessments in science, and it ensures that the results of these assessments will continue to be made available to parents and the public.
The agreement turns much control back to states by allowing them to make decisions about academic achievement goals and interventions when those goals are not met. With this bill becoming law, states will be given the flexibility they asked for and will have the opportunity to do what’s right for young people. Our organizations are committed to working with states to craft strong accountability systems — systems with real opportunities for schools to turn things around effectively and quickly where a large percentage of students or subgroups fail to make the progress necessary to be prepared for college or a career.
It is not easy to strike the right balance between accountability and flexibility, but we are hopeful that Congress has found a way to relieve some of the most burdensome and unnecessary requirements of NCLB while also ensuring schools are held accountable for educating all children. The formula is pretty simple: establish high-quality standards and effective assessments for all students, share the disaggregated results with the public and require action to fix schools that need help to improve teaching and learning.
This is the best opportunity we have had in years to reassert our commitment to ensuring a quality education for all.
Thomas J. Donohue is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Cornell Brooks is president of the NAACP. On Dec.10-11, they brought together their members for an event in Washington, D.C., to discuss solutions to raising academic achievement of African-American students.