Mr. Harkin’s bill would allow states to use portfolios or projects as well as standardized tests to assess students. And in contrast to current law, which requires states to choose from a short menu of turnaround measures like closing schools or firing staff members at schools labeled failing, Mr. Harkin’s bill gives states and districts more flexibility to devise their own supports for all but the most struggling schools.
Up for reauthorization since 2007, NCLB has met with various counterproposals and workarounds, particularly in the Obama administration. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has granted waivers to 37 states to ignore various aspects of the law. So there’s no question that the law needs updating. But while Harkin’s proposal takes some baby steps in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to fix things.The core problem with NCLB, as with all national education reform plans, is that it is very difficult for the federal government to strike the right balance between accountability and flexibility. Programs like NCLB emphasize accountability above all else by tying school funding to performance on standardized tests, but the result is a school system that effectively straitjackets teachers and makes it difficult to adjust to the specific needs of their students. Other reform programs grant teachers more flexibility, but lose accountability in the process. Harkin’s plan tinkers a bit with the NCLB formula, but it does nothing to solve this core dilemma.The only solution is to put power in the hands of the people who care the most and have the most to lose or gain: parents. This is why we like school vouchers. Tying schools’ revenues to their ability to attract students would make for a much more effective form of accountability.[Kids marching up a hill image courtesy of Shutterstock]