New federal education law keeps standards, but gives states more leeway

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It sounded so good, the No Child Left Behind initiative of the era of President George W. Bush. Make schools and teachers more accountable. Ensure that children progress in school as they should. That was in 2002.

But No Child Left Behind didn’t work in practice, something Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed upon, and so they joined together this week to pass what is essentially a revision of the law, the Every Child Succeeds Act.

More decision-making will be left to states, abandoning what some critics said was a “cookie cutter” methodology in the Bush-era approach. Interestingly, this could mean an end to Common Core, a perfectly reasonable set of standards in basic courses, devised by state school officials and the nation’s governors.

Unfortunately, Common Core got politicized, with some Republicans actually trying to sell the notion that it came from the Obama administration, which it did not.

But even as measurements and some standards are left to states, the new law will retain one important aspect that might be unsettling still to states, particularly those in the South where President Obama is most unpopular.

Children will be required to take reading and math tests mandated by the federal government, which means there will at least be some standards against which to measure their progress and a way for school systems to compare themselves with others in different parts of the country.

Teachers unions won a point, in that the law doesn’t connect teacher evaluations to how students do on statewide achievement tests. Advocates of that change think it might allow teachers to focus on teaching without one eye on testing at all times.

Parents may also be winners. They’ll be able to get more information about how students in their districts, and their states, are doing compared with others, and they’ll also see details on per-pupil funding, breaking it down by state and district.

For those in North Carolina who’ve followed the Leandro case, which mandated state improvement in low-performing schools to guarantee that “sound, basic education” the courts ruled kids were due, the revised law contains an important requirement. States will have to improve those low-performing schools, and the performance standards also will be measured by dropout rates in high schools and whether there are achievement gaps between groups of students. That’s going to put pressure on North Carolina lawmakers and state school officials.