June 19, 2018
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Too Many Ways to Fail


With rapidly growing numbers of schools in Maine and across the country labeled as needing improvement, a new approach to raising educational standards was clearly needed. So the president’s announcement last week that his administration was easing portions of the No Child Left Behind law was welcome. As was its pledge to return more control to local school systems.

Simply replacing one federal mandate with another is not a solution, however, so the Obama administration must follow through on its pledge to give states more power to determine the right solutions for their students.

“As a nation we have an obligation to make sure our children have the resources they need to learn,” President Barack Obama said during a briefing at the White House last week. “The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable. Higher standards are the right goal … but No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them.”

The 2001 education law was well-meaning — its goal was to improve educational outcomes for all students. But, there were so many ways for schools to fail to meet standards — not having enough students in specific subgroups show up for tests, having too few students in other subgroups show improvements in their test scores — that it too often felt like an exercise in futility.

That’s why a move to more state control, as the president pledged, makes sense. But, as with NCLB, the key to the workability of any new system is how progress toward standards is measured.

Flexibility, the president said, was the new watchword. But there are still strict federal parameters that states must meet. Teacher evaluations must be linked to student performance, for example. This has been highly contentious in Maine and is likely to remain so even though it is strongly supported by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

“Today’s announcement will provide important support to our efforts in Maine and in the other states,” Commissioner Bowen said last week. “It stresses the leadership role of states in developing the next generation of accountability measures. It stresses the continued importance of assessments and accountability, while calling for us to be smarter and more flexible about it — something we’ve been asking for years.”

This more cooperative approach holds promise. Guiding schools to avenues of success — rather than highlighting their shortcomings — must remain the focus.

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