South Carolina appears poised, along with the majority of states, to opt out of the controversial and punitive No Child Left Behind law.
Education Superintendent Mick Zais, Gov. Nikki Haley and state legislators should proceed with caution with this the U.S. Department of Education’s offer to grant waivers, as it’s unclear whether this opportunity will prove to be positive or negative. It could be yet another bureaucratic disaster for public schools, or it could signal a shift away from partisan politics and toward evidence-based school reform.
No Child Left Behind has been used by administrations of both parties to force states into policies and practices that do more harm than good — for example, Reading First under George W. Bush and Race to the Top under President Obama. Opting out should be a move by states to challenge the use of education policy and funding to control state governments, but elements of the waiver option appear to be yet more of that failed practice.
A growing body of research shows that accountability, standards and testing either have had no positive impact on student outcomes and closing the achievement gap or have actually created a test-prep culture that asks less and less of students.
These sobering realities are reinforced by international comparisons that should influence each state seeking more flexibility from Washington.
A key model for South Carolina and the nation is Finland. First, Finland demonstrates that the social conditions of children’s lives are the primary influences on student learning. In order to reform education, states must address the plight of childhood poverty that is high in the United States compared to other countries and increasing.
Yet Finland also shows that social equity alone is not enough to raise student achievement. Educator and blogger Joe Bower has produced a well-respected analysis of the similarities between Finland and Norway in social conditions and the differences these two countries produce in their education systems — with Finland often at the top of outcomes and Norway far less successful. The difference: Norway has implemented education policy similar to that in the United States; Finland has not.
• Finland uses brief and guiding standards that support teacher autonomy and expertise, not elaborate and prescriptive standards that drive a testing culture.
• Finland implements virtually no standardized testing, and never uses test data to label or rank students, schools or teachers.
• Teachers in Finland are trusted, given professional autonomy and offered collaborative environments in which to address the needs of every single child.
• Finland rejects tracking, and instead seeks to offer all children a high-quality education, with funding equity from school to school, regardless of the economic status of the community.
If South Carolina opts out of No Child Left Behind to pursue narrow partisan goals — such as private school choice or increasing charter schools — or to implement more of the same — such as test-based accountability, increasing competition among teachers, students and schools, or further de-professionalizing teachers — then opting out is yet another waste of time at the expense of South Carolina’s children and our entire state.
Opting out must be a courageous and nonpartisan call to reform not only our schools but the reform movement itself. We have ample evidence of what we must do if we’ll only allow ourselves to see beyond party loyalty.