Better off on our own

With Oregon, 31 other states and the District of Columbia gaining waivers of the central requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the chief federal education reform act of the past decade is well on its way toward becoming a nullity.

It's just as well: The act requires that by 2014, all students meet standards in reading and math or face federal sanctions. No state can or will meet this goal, so most have sought and got permission to pursue education improvements on their own.

In Oregon's case, a credible education reform effort is under way. The state is attempting to integrate education at all levels, and it has set a goal of ensuring that by 2025 all students graduate from high school and 80 percent go on to college or a training program. That, too, is likely to prove an unattainable goal, but the attempt to achieve it promises to yield educational benefits without the punitive consequences of falling short of an unrealistic standard.

The reform law is noble in its ambitions but flawed in its execution. The idea is that every student, with no exceptions, deserves an education, and that the results meet measurable standards. To meet this ideal, states are required to come up with tests to measure student achievement in basic skills. Schools are judged to have failed if any group of students' test scores are unsatisfactory.

Failure brings sanctions, including a loss of federal funds. Last year, 48 percent of the nation's schools were labeled as failing. Many schools now prepare students for the tests and for little else — but even so, nearly all of the nation's schools that remain subject to the act are likely to be in the failing category by 2014.

No Child Left Behind law was a product of a bipartisan partnership between President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, with such figures as Rep. John Boehner in supporting roles. Today, there's a bipartisan consensus that the act isn't working — Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls it a "train wreck" — but Congress can't agree on how to fix it. The Obama administration's response to congressional gridlock is to be generous in granting waivers.

The waivers leave powerful leverage in the federal government's hands — states that don't devise acceptable student assessment and teacher evaluation systems can be subject to sanctions. In Oregon, the public school system will focus on a broader spectrum of learning than the few basic skills enumerated in the law, while the state will intervene to improve results in schools identified as having the poorest rates of improvement in student performance.

That is the direction the federal reform effort should have taken 10 years ago: a broad national mandate to improve education, with each state crafting its own methods of measuring and improving the results. The waivers make Oregon and other states responsible for their own successes or failures, while at the same time giving them the flexibility to respond to their own weaknesses and build upon their own strengths.

The emerging system of state experimentation subject to broad federal guidelines is not what the act's authors had in mind when they built the waiver escape hatch into their legislation. But with Congress unable to act, it's the only way the nation can avoid punishing schools for failing to meet an unattainable goal by 2014.

Oregon and the other states are better off on their own.

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