The state’s recent decision to apply for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law is concerning. Since its inception in 2001 this Bush era legislation has required schools to be accountable for results and has lead to major ongoing efforts to improve education in every school in our country. For years the 2014 deadline seemed far away, but now as it looms near our state education officials feel we should back away from the rules that have lead to so much success in the commonwealth’s schools.
Unlike many other states, Massachusetts chose to adopt a rigorous standard, which students have been held to since. In Norton we have had a process of continuous improvement where the hard cold results provided feedback that we still had a long way to go. Each year administrators would come before the school committee and report the results and review the prior strategies employed, determine whether they worked, and if not plan the next logical step. We learned from our successes and failures, and our schools became better with each passing year. Simply having to go through this process put our schools on track to be stronger than any private school, who are exempt from these rigorous standards and often rest on their reputations instead of striving to improve.
Many have criticized the law, often stating that it causes teachers to “teach to the test”. But whether or not this is bad clearly depends upon the test, and in the case of the MCAS exam we have a good test. Rather than simply being asked to regurgitate facts (as I was as a public school student) today’s students not only have to know the facts but apply critical thinking to get to the right answer. And after all, wouldn’t you want a physician to have passed high quality exams before having the privilege of caring for your family member?
Now 10 years in the state is getting cold feet. It has forced teachers and districts to live up to the standards during some very tough economic times. In almost every year since I was first elected to the Norton School Committee in 2003 we have had to cut some program or other critical element from our budget. But our teachers have never stopped striving to meet the high standards in this imperfect law. As a result our district has risen to the upper quarter in results in a state that ranks first in the nation. As Beth McManus, our current chairperson and 2011 graduation speaker said, “If you graduate from Norton High and you have a good attitude, nothing can stop you.”
And don’t forget, today’s kids have a very different future to step into than recent generations. Most will have several careers in their lifetimes, need to have strong technical skills, and by necessity will have to be lifelong learners to adapt to the many changes they’ll encounter before they retire.
The state’s education system still has problems. One of our biggest is the achievement gap between white and minority students. But the solution is to continue to find a way to help those not there yet to reach the standard, rather than lowering it. Sticking with the No Child Left Behind law is the best chance to make sure every student has a shot to reach their potential which will not only leave our commonwealth a better place to live but provide the best chance for a secure economic future.
(This post was originally a letter to the Norton Patch editor.)