The land of opportunity (for some)

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By Cheryl Oldham

education_020510gettyThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The law was passed to help ensure that ALL students across the country, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic background, have equal access to a quality public education.

Intended to be reauthorized every five years, the last update to ESEA was in 2002 under the name No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. It is long overdue for reauthorization, which is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauds Senate  Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) for their leadership in moving quickly in the new Congress to reauthorize the law.

To be sure, there are provisions in NCLB that need fixing — I think everyone can agree on that. However, some of the most critically important principles of the law are under threat of being tossed, which would harm those students the law is intended to protect in the first place.

What makes this country so great and the reason that millions of people around the world want to come here is because of one thing: opportunity. America, the land of opportunity, was built on the idea that if you work hard and follow the rules, you can be anything you want to be in life. For many of us, this still rings true. Sadly, for millions of kids in our public schools, this simply isn’t reality.

For them, the opportunity for a high-quality education is merely a pipe dream. Too many low-income and minority students begin their lives behind the eight ball, trapped in failing schools, falling further and further behind. This is tragic. Nothing is more important to the success of this great nation than an education system that educates all children, including the most vulnerable. And it is precisely these students that NCLB was written to help.

Before NCLB, education for poor and minority children was an afterthought. It’s what former President George W. Bush famously called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” And it took a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to come together and say enough is enough — ALL kids matter. The three provisions in NCLB, essentially the backbone of the law, are annual assessments, public reporting and accountability. And it’s these provisions that have helped usher in the fastest improvements in academic achievement among low-income and minority children in nearly 40 years. Remarkably, it’s precisely these provisions in the law that are in jeopardy.

The annual assessment provision in the law requires states to test all students in third through eighth grade once a year in reading and math and then one more time in high school. Requiring that states measure how kids are doing is the foundation that provides parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers with valuable data on student achievement. Annual assessments are the best way to measure student learning, period. Disaggregating that data by subgroups of students is the most effective way of shining a spotlight where students are struggling.

For instance, before NCLB, we didn’t have data on how African-Americans performed compared with their white peers. We didn’t know how students from low-income families fared versus those with more affluent means. NCLB shed a light on this inequity. The assessments were publicly reported so that parents and taxpayers had honest and consistent information on how their child’s school was performing. Imagine providing parents with transparent information about how their child is performing in school compared with other student groups and schools. This is the minimum of what parents should expect and be provided.

Finally, accountability. Why would taxpayers continue to fund a failing education system that has no incentive for improvement? That’s just nuts. Now here is an area where the U.S. Chamber thinks that Washington’s footprint is too large. NCLB’s accountability system was dictated from Washington, where goals and consequences were set by the federal government. After years of implementing this approach, it is time for a system that moves control away from Washington to one where states design their own accountability systems in exchange for federal dollars. This is a common-sense approach to keep accountability in the bill while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are still spent wisely.

The U.S. Chamber recently signed on to a coalition letter that outlines the three core principles that need to remain in the new law. Other signatories include the National Council of La Raza, the Business Roundtable, The Education Trust and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. These are groups that have widely different missions; some may say we are a group of strange bedfellows. What isn’t strange about our coalition is the fact that education matters to us.

Education matters to the future of our country. Whether we are talking about greater equality, social mobility or the economic competitiveness of our nation, education holds the key to all of these. And to truly be the land of opportunity, we must deliver on our national commitment to the success of every child — it’s what great nations do.

Oldham is vice president of education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


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