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Volume 17, Number 2
March/April 2001

How to Bring a Campaign Slogan to Life

An open letter to President Bush


Mr. President:

This year—like every other year—America's educational system will leave countless young Americans behind. Substantial numbers of poor and minority young people—as many as half in our major cities and over one-third of all Latinos nationwide—will not make it to high school graduation, condemning them to lives out of the economic mainstream. Among those that do graduate, African Americans, Latinos, and poor white students will have 8th-grade reading and math skills. Though most high school graduates will go on to college, more than a quarter of those in four-year colleges and nearly half of those in two-year colleges will not make it to sophomore year. And young people from high-income families will be seven times more likely to earn that ticket to family-supporting wages—the college degree—than young people from low-income families.

Many argue that the federal government cannot do much about this. "Leave no child behind" is a catchy slogan, they say, but education is primarily a state and local matter, not one readily within the influence of presidents—or, for that matter, Congress. Hogwash. Federal policy has had an enormous impact, for good and for ill, in areas such as special education, desegregation, and standards-based reform, which federal policy and dollars have convinced 49 states to adopt in less than a decade.

Washington's biggest influence has been on the way we think about and educate poor children. For years, policymakers dispensed resources for needy children without asking anyone to account for student learning. That changed in 1992 as incontrovertible evidence emerged that poor children could achieve at much higher levels. The shift to hold schools accountable so that poor children would be educated to the same high standards as everyone else is far from complete.

The key question is what you, Mr. President, can do to complete this shift.

First, don't stop talking about the bigotry of low expectations. Always make it clear that you believe that poor children and children of color can achieve at high levels if they are taught at high levels and get help along the way. The evidence is clearly on your side, but many people cling to the old myths that poor children can't learn. Use your opportunities to teach the American people. Share concrete examples of what you mean by low expectations. Tell the stories of schools and districts that are proving that poor kids can learn.

Second, don't back down on your demand that states assess student progress in meeting high academic standards—and report annually to parents and the public. As the best urban principals have long said, "You've got to inspect what you expect." Of course, testing alone will not boost overall student achievement. Indeed, the wrong kind of testing can actually make things worse. But if we don't measure whether students meet standards, those standards will never matter. Federal resources should be used to assure that states develop a rich array of assess ments rather than a single, low-level test.

Third, the configuration of accountability systems has a powerful effect on behavior. As you learned in Texas, to improve the achievement of all groups of children, accountability systems must measure the progress of each group. Your predecessor gave states and local authorities control over federal spending for poor students but didn't require in return evidence that poor children were learning more. That's a bad trade.

Fourth, teachers matter more than anything. If we want them to succeed with all children, we must invest generously in the kind of focused, coherent professional development that has fueled dramatic growth in student achievement in places like Connecticut and New York's District 2. Support for high-quality curriculum development—perhaps developed by consortia of states or districts—would also speed progress. A set-aside of 10 to 20 percent of Title I would make this possible.

Finally, there is the matter of resources
. Political will and passion alone won't boost student achievement or close the achievement gap. You must be willing to commit significant new federal dollars to your education proposal and ensure that those funds are targeted at poor children. You cannot give an inch on this.

Also, Title I is presently founded on a shameful fiction—that states and districts are providing a level playing field to which the federal government then adds resources to cover the extra needs of the poor. However, in more than two-thirds of states, the base is far from equitable. New York, for example, spends nearly $60,000 more per average-sized classroom in low-poverty schools than it does in high-poverty schools. In Illinois, the spending gap between high- and low-poverty classrooms is $20,000. Even within some districts, there are differences of almost this magnitude. In these jurisdictions, Title I dollars don't even assure poor students of the same amount or quality of instruction as more affluent kids, much less provide extra assistance.

By vigorously enforcing comparability requirements in current law, and by pushing to include in the new law even more aggressive requirements for basic fairness, you could add the federal government's weight to that of an increasing number of state courts in signaling state legislatures that enough is enough. Sure, withholding federal dollars from inequitably funded states might lose you a little support in Texas, which has made some progress in recent years but still has some distance to go. But it would demonstrate, perhaps more than any other single action, that you mean what you say about leaving no child behind.

Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for improving academic opportunities for K-16 students, especially those of color or from low-income backgrounds.