Standards

Law’s Lofty Goals Valuable, Business Leaders Say

By Lynn Olson — January 08, 2003 3 min read
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Getting all children to the proficient level on state tests within 12 years—the central goal of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001—may not be realistic, but setting such a deadline will spur needed improvements, according to panelists at a recent forum here.

“It’s not realistic that all students are going to meet the same standards,” if the standards are meaningful and rigorous, said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. That “would be a revolutionary transformation of the human race,” he said.

Other panelists at the Dec. 11 forum, hosted by the Business Roundtable to discuss implementation of the federal law one year after its passage, agreed that the goal may not be possible, but said having an ambitious timeline was important.

“We need to talk about the fact that all kids should reach proficiency at some point in time,” said Tom Houlihan, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “If we don’t talk about that, where’s that vision, where’s that mission, where’s the thing that’s going to help push us in that direction?”

Sandy Kress, the panel’s moderator and a former adviser to President Bush, predicted that within the next two or three years, “we will begin to see the first signs of discernible improvement in the long-stalled student-achievement data, and continuous and steady improvement thereafter.”

A key architect of the No Child Left Behind law, Mr. Kress is now working with the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of leading corporations that has been a strong proponent of standards-based education, to help implement the legislation in seven states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Ohio.

“The movement toward these reforms, in my view, is irreversible and inevitable,” he said.

Difficulties Seen

But while the panelists generally lauded the vision embodied in the law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they also highlighted a number of practical challenges.

Among their concerns: the capacity of states to carry out the law’s requirements in a weak economy; the need to revise teacher-licensing requirements to ensure having “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year; and the difficulty of meshing existing state accountability systems with new federal mandates.

Just getting good data for accountability purposes is a “huge problem,” particularly for English- language learners, said Charles Kamasaki, a senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanics. He said the federal government had offered “zero guidance” on when to test English-language learners in English instead of their native languages, and when to provide them with accommodations, such as those provided to special education students.

Another problem, said Mr. Mooney, is the wide variation in what constitutes “proficiency” across the 50 states, which may eventually cause policymakers to revisit the contentious debate around national standards.

But one of the biggest questions, the panelists said, is how the government will approach enforcement of the law. Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation, said it’s important that enforcement “be artful so that you don’t treat people or states or schools that are making progress and are implementing successful designs” the same way “as those that aren’t doing anything at all.”

As an example of what’s possible, Ms. Kafer pointed to the “no excuses” schools profiled by the Heritage Foundation. In those high-poverty, high-minority schools, according to the Washington think tank, strong leaders have gotten most of the students to pass state reading and mathematics tests within a few years.

“So it definitely is doable,” Ms. Kafer argued. “Now, what is it going to take? It’s going to take a reliance on what works.”

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