In Our View: No Child Left Behind = Busy Work

Federal education reform plan is mired in its own bureaucratic clutter

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The beginning of a new school year makes an examination of the federal No Child Left Behind law timely and appropriate. And it doesn’t take long to recognize that NCLB is sinking under its own weight into a morass of bureaucratic mindlessness, red-taping educators into a frightful paralysis and embarrassing politicians of both parties.

NCLB began with noble intention — holding schools accountable for steady improvement — when it was passed in 2001. The law was due for reauthorization in 2007, but former President George W. Bush ran headlong into an uncooperative Congress. As agonized Americans have learned, that intransigence between the executive and legislative branches would only worsen. President Obama’s most recent effort on NCLB was an overhaul proposal he sent to Congress more than a year ago. To no one’s surprise, that proposal remains in partisan cold storage. So the law remains unrefined but, worse for the school districts, it continues to burden educators with unreasonable expectations and pesters taxpayers with a devaluation of their investment.

Here in Clark County, there has been one recent development in the NCLB arena: Two schools that were on the state’s needs-improvement list — Skyridge Middle School in the Camas school district and Hockinson Heights Intermediate in Hockinson — have been removed from the list, according to a Columbian story last week. Congratulations to students, teachers, parents and administrators at those two schools.

But the dreaded list remains a farce. Schools are rated by ethnic groups and poverty levels, and if one group does not make meaningful progress, the whole school is put on the list. In all, 37 categories are used by the federal government to judge a school and, astoundingly, 265 schools in Washington were put on the needs-improvement list by falling short in just one category. More than 1,380 Washington schools are on the list, an increase of about 200 schools from last year.

None of those schools, we suggest, “needs improvement” as badly as the NCLB law itself.

Officials in the Obama administration are trying to help, but they’re only making matters worse. On Aug. 8, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that states could apply for a waiver from NCLB scorn by adopting numerous other education reforms that the White House favors. This, understandably, infuriates Republicans, and it should outrage all Americans because it signals a total breakdown of education-reform efforts inside the Beltway. The Herald in Everett editorialized: “That’s a whole lot of discretion for Congress to cede to the executive branch — and further evidence of Congressional leadership’s abject failure to work across party lines to prioritize and act on critical issues.”

Duncan warned that if the law is not changed, 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year, under the ridiculous guidelines described above. In Washington, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has said that by 2014, when NCLB requires all children in the U.S. to meet academic standards in reading and math, the needs-improvement list could include every school in the state. Of course, Washingtonians know that simply is not the case. Many schools are highly successful.

Lost in all of this confusion is the reality that schools and teachers are wasting countless hours on these mindless federal education mandates. If NCLB cannot make education better — and if Congress cannot make NCLB better — then the controversial law should be more than just reformed. It should be jettisoned.