Margaret Spellings was secretary of education from 2005 to 2009.
What lessons have we learned from the historic legislation known as No Child Left Behind? The most gratifying is that more kids are learning their lessons. How do we know? Because our schools are now required to find out how each student is doing every year in the key building-block subjects of reading and math. Now that we have annual assessment data that is disaggregated by student group, we can diagnose and correct weaknesses in instruction and learning.
Our nation's education report card tells the story. Achievement is up across the board, especially for those too often "left behind": poor, minority, and special education students. In reading, 9-year-olds made more progress in the last nine years than in the previous 28 years combined. What gets measured does indeed get done. Lesson No. 1: Accountability is a powerful tool and is working to improve learning.
Lesson No. 2: Accountability also makes people uncomfortable. We no longer are able to hide from the facts, which say that only half our minority students stand a chance of graduating from high school on time. The discomfort this has created shows the fundamental power of accountability that is at the core of the No Child law. We would be loath to go back to the days when we tested students every few years and averaged their scores together to mask the staggering achievement gap that plagues our country. Politicians of both parties, educators, and especially parents now rightfully expect to know the truth.
We've also identified ways that the law can be improved. The policy calls made when the law was enacted were based on far less information than we have today. We only had a single snapshot of data in elementary and middle school. We did not ask schools to report on achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers. That all has changed. Now, the reauthorization will be guided by these data and a better understanding of the law's strengths and limitations.
Lesson No. 3: The law should encourage continuous improvement in our classrooms, give educators the credit they deserve for the most challenging work, and provide parents and students more customized options. Now that we have annual assessment in all 50 states, we can use systems that give schools and teachers credit for an individual student's year-over-year improvement, rather than looking at absolute scores. As secretary of education, I started a pilot program to allow states to use such systems. We can build on this pilot and expand it nationwide.
We can also do a much better job of evaluating and assessing teacher effectiveness. Research shows that the most powerful way to improve student achievement is to make sure every child is taught by a highly effective teacher. Our most effective teachers should be teaching our most disadvantaged students and be rewarded with better pay and more support. On this issue, too, we can build on the work started through President Bush's Teacher Incentive Fund and expand it to all 50 states.
Parents deserve even more information and better options that customize schools to meet the needs of their children. We need more charters, more school choice, more customized technology, and more real-time feedback to catch educational problems, intervene immediately, and better address the needs of our student population. Those will make a real difference.
The one question driving all of our actions should be "Are kids learning?" Policymakers have come a long way in 10 years. Talk of class size ratios, modernization of school facilities, and how much money is being spent is now overshadowed by a focus on student achievement. But there are some who would rather go back to the days of policymaking based on inputs rather than results. It's an easy way to avoid the hard decisions about what to do with our lowest-performing schools.
Lesson No. 4: Watch for special-interest agendas that stall the focus on closing the achievement gap.
That leads to the last lesson, which is the hardest. To really close the achievement gap and provide opportunity to every student, from gifted academic learners to special education students, we must get more serious about this work. Policymakers still have not taken on the most sacred cows in education: How to effectively use time and people in our schools. We intuitively know that no enterprise of any kind can be fully successful without the best use of both. It's time for us to put kids before adults and begin to get really serious about our lessons.