No Child Left Behind is dead. There's bipartisan agreement on that. But there's wide disagreement on how to keep school reform alive. Democrats see a stronger role for the federal government. Republicans favor a free market with more local control.

There's evidence NCLB hasn't been a total failure. Test scores show proficiency in English and math has improved substantially over the last ten years. In 2003 only 36 percent of California 7th graders were at grade level in English. By 2012 the number had risen to 62 percent. Proficiency in math rose from 30 to 52 percent.

But all the focus on testing has failed to do what it was intended to do: bring every student to grade level proficiency by 2014. What's worse, the achievement gap separating low income students from their more well-to-do peers hasn't narrowed a bit. While more than 80 percent of California's non-economically disadvantaged 7th graders are proficient in English, only 49 percent of their low income classmates have reached that level. In math disadvantaged students lag by 69 to 43 percent.

Most worrisome is the dramatic growth in the low income student population in California, rising from 48 percent in 2003 to over 60 percent today. It doesn't bode well for California's economic future if more than half its workforce is undereducated.

It's not just a California problem. A May report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), The Condition of Education 2013, cites data showing one in five public schools was considered high poverty in 2011, compared to just one in eight in 2000.

Talk of school reform has turned away from testing students to using their test scores to evaluate teachers, employing carrots of merit pay and the sticks of merit-based layoffs¬¬¬.

In his 2010 Economic Policy Institute report, "How to Fix our Schools," Research Associate Richard Rothstein writes "Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement. But the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors."

School reformer Michelle Rhee doesn't agree with Rothstein and the research he cites. She claims the quality of the teacher is the "single most important factor in whether a student succeeds in school." President Obama, on the other hand, has clarified that the teacher is the most important "in-school ingredient," but "the single biggest ingredient is the parent."

Yes, outstanding teachers can make a big difference. But they can't be expected to erase the obstacles to learning low income kids face before they enter first grade. Until we replace No Child Left Behind with an Every Child Ready to Learn pre-school program, we'll continue to look for scapegoats rather than solutions.

Richard Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at [email protected]


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