Monday, March 14, 2011 | 8:50 a.m.
President Obama is attempting a new clarion call on the subject of education, telling Congress to make changes to the country’s dominant education law, No Child Left Behind, before the start of the new school year.
But it’s not clear yet if what he’s got in mind to replace it could help turn Nevada’s last-in-the-nation schools around.
A renewed focus on education has been a long time coming in Washington, with lawmakers across parties agreeing that No Child Left Behind -- which is years overdue for a reauthorization anyway -- is too flawed to be allowed to proceed without alteration.
NCLB brought about many changes when it became law in 2002, but the most dramatic shift came in the area of imposing accountability through periodic national testing to determine whether students were performing at a level considered proficient for their grade.
That’s the wrong approach, administration officials said over the weekend.
“The only measure of success is that you’re not labeled a failure,” said Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who blamed the No Child Left Behind model for causing a “dumbing-down” of education systems across the United States.
In their call for a new strategy, Obama’s education team is clearly favoring a more carrots-than-sticks approach, modeling their goals of improving college attainment, teacher quality and enabling schools to teach with the tools of modern technology, after the ideals laid out in the Race to the Top program.
But that program didn’t work so well for Nevada. Through a competitive process, the Obama administration identified 16 states and Washington, D.C., for special attention and investment into innovative education strategies, but Nevada didn’t make the cut
What’s a measure of success? Well, according to administration chiefs, a well-rounded curriculum, stressing the basics of reading and mathematics, but also featuring science, music, sports, languages -- all of which require a unique approach in every state.
“We can’t be top-down from Washington, we have to provide a lot more flexibility,” Duncan said.
But no matter what state one’s in, keeping that sort of programming alive also requires money, and that’s where these ideas may run aground.
Nevada’s about to experience the largest-ever cuts to its education system as part of the budgetary austerity measures the Legislature is considering. While the breakdown of figures has focused chiefly on teachers’ salaries and extraneous spending, it hardly stretches the imagination to see how that can trickle down to squeeze out teachers from non-essential subjects -- and hamper efforts to bring curricula into the 21st century in the way the Obama administration envisions.
Of course, with the dawn of any new federal initiative, there is always the potential for federal dollars to help. And it’s worth noting that education does seem to be the one area where Democrats and Republicans agree on at least the goal of what constitutes a “good education” in America -- making this the most promising area for political cooperation we’ve yet seen this Congress.
But even when Democrats and Republicans agree on education policy, they don’t have the greatest record of coming up with a mutually satisfactory way of paying for it. That was the initial problem with No Child Left Behind; and now that the country’s fully consumed with slashing budgets to counter the recession, signs point to similarly closed checkbooks.
The Republican budget and the Obama administration’s budget are both proposing reductions to the Pell grant program, which has become a mainstay for many low-income students hoping to attend college.
The Republicans’ proposed budget has also identified deep cuts to programs like Head Start.
While the programs marked for cuts are still just bookends to the primary-and-secondary educational attainment all of Washington is worried about, those steps have the potential to undermine parts of Obama’s barely-unveiled education strategy. The administration’s proposal relies on a philosophy of connectivity between levels of education, setting a college degree as its ultimate measure of success.