When a school can earn an A from the state and yet be given failing marks by the federal government, there should be no doubt that school accountability has gone awry. But that is exactly the case in Florida and elsewhere as the No Child Left Behind federal law threatens to paint most schools as failing, even if they are not. So it is wise for President Barack Obama to take a hard look at the decade-old NCLB rules and adjust them to give Florida and other states flexibility to meet high standards.
Because Congress has failed to reform the law, Obama is taking executive action to let states apply for NCLB waivers, in effect, to allow them to substitute their own accountability systems for the current federal one. In particular, the president would not require states to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 — a laudable goal but one that is realistically unattainable.
Obama believes that NCLB, passed during the Bush administration, had many positive aspects, such as shining a bright light on the students who often struggle in school — minorities, those from low-income families, students with disabilities and pupils who are still learning English.
But the president also appreciates that the law did not distinguish between schools that were actually failing — and needed drastic action — and schools that needed to improve in specific areas or with certain groups of students. Not differentiating between those two kinds of schools means that far too many are labeled as failing, including perhaps as many as 90 percent of the public schools in Florida. That's ironic, because many of those schools are "failing" because they aren't meeting a high benchmark that the state set, while some other states set their bars low and then labeled their students proficient. Florida is among those states being punished for great expectations.
A failing number that high lacks any nuance or diagnostic value. So allowing waivers, which Florida plans to seek, brings a reasonable attitude toward a law that overreached and oversimplified.
Many questions, particularly about teacher evaluations, remain. Under a waiver, the new bar for measuring teachers would not be set just by student scores on standardized math and reading tests, but by how well children are prepared for college or careers. This is, in theory, an intelligent goal. But in practice it could present a new set of challenges. And in setting new standards, both the state and the federal government should take care not to merely replace one set of flawed measurements with another. In its waiver, Florida wisely expects to ask to use more nuanced measures that include end-of-course exams in biology, geometry and algebra in high school as well as graduation rates.
There are many details yet to be worked out, and a waiver should not be a license to significantly lower the standards for any school or any group of students. But if a waiver brings some common sense to accountability, and acknowledges that schools are making progress even if they still have far to go, that would be welcome change in a law that should act as a carrot, not a cudgel.