Year In Review

USA Today rounds-up 2006 in education. Pretty cliché stuff, but at the surface level it was a pretty cliché year. But, I think the No Child Left Behind item completely misses the boat and reinforces the superficial view of what’s happening rather than the more interesting actual storyline.

First, isn’t the real NCLB story that despite a sustained assault on the law, lawsuits, and state threats to pull out and refuse the money to avoid the law’s provisions nothing has happened? Dogs that don’t bark don’t make news but the press falls all over themselves to write stories every time the National Education Association files another frivolous suit against NCLB or a state makes an empty threat to turn down millions in federal education aid. Isn’t it newsworthy that none of that has come to fruition?

Second, the story highlights my colleague Tom Toch’s criticism that a lot of tests states are using under NCLB are pretty basic. That’s exactly right. I’m all for better tests, but isn’t that, you know, an indictment of schools that can’t even get kids over a pretty low bar rather than an indictment of the law? In other words, excepting some fine-grained issues around special populations, NCLB can’t be wildly unrealistic in what it demands of schools and really basic at the same time, can it? The story doesn’t sift through that in detail but would be nice if some journo would.* The reality is that we don’t deliver a very powerful instructional program in a lot of schools, and that’s not the fault of NCLB.

Finally, both the criticisms of the law in the story (Fordham’s Petrilli weighs-in on the weakness of some NCLB provisions) are not really calls for less NCLB but rather calls for more NCLB. To my first point, that seems like the real story heading into the discussion about reauthorization. NCLB being basically here to stay isn’t such good copy, but it’s the reality.

My pick for most important eduhappening of the year? The emerging debate about and bipartisan support for weighted-student funding. Not a silver bullet but could help substantively and by creating some grand bargains on the finance front. And, pace Willie Sutton, the money is at the state and local level… In terms of a trend with impact potential that took root in 2006, that’s it. Honorable mention to the NAACP intervening in the anti-NCLB lawsuit in Connecticut – on behalf of the Bush Administration and the law. Too little reported, but an important example of the subsurface stuff that was going on this year that will drive this debate in years to come.

*Related, there is a tension between high-performing students and low-performing ones in terms of where to put resources and attention. Not completely binary, and plenty of students falling behind today could be high performers in better schools. But still there and mostly talked about in code words rather than forthrightly: Are we as a nation better off really focusing on the millions of kids at the wrong end of the achievement gap even if its suboptimal for kids on the high end? And spare me the rhetoric about how you can easily do both. You can to some extent but constrained resources, carrots and sticks in policy, and time constraints all make tradeoffs a reality.

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