President George W. Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Rep. George Miller of California and others on a bipartisan basis had a clear goal when they championed No Child Left Behind in 2001. Shine a light on the achievement of all students (not just school averages) and hold schools accountable for results.
That five-year law came up for renewal in 2007, but Congress has been unable to craft another bipartisan bill.
So President Barack Obama, faced with inaction by Congress, has decided to act himself. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Monday that he would grant waivers to states if they meet certain conditions.
The original No Child Left Behind law required testing of all students in grades three to eight in reading and math. Its aim was that all students should be proficient in those two subjects by 2014.
That goal was as dramatic and ambitious as President John F. Kennedy's 1961 goal of landing an American on the moon within that decade. And it did have the effect of getting schools to focus serious attention on student achievement, particularly students who were struggling in otherwise good schools.
One problem has been that some states lowered their standards to make the targets. Another has been that states and districts have been overwhelmed with increasing numbers of schools that are not making "adequate yearly progress."
So in the absence of action by Congress, the Obama administration is willing to grant waivers to states on the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 if they adopt high standards for what students should learn and evaluate teachers based on student gains in achievement.
Many states, including California, are well under way on the first part, recently adopting a set of common standards for English and math to avoid a patchwork of 50 sets of English and math standards of varying quality.
This Common Core helps to address the "mile-wide, inch-deep" problem – covering too many topics in the early grades in too little depth – found in the math standards in California and other states. In the English language, Common Core gives students a better foundation in American literature, including literacy in history and science, a cross-disciplinary approach.
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