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Fixing No Child Left Behind

If we want a stronger economy tomorrow we need to give our kids a good education today. That was the idea behind No Child Left Behind: to ensure that every American child can graduate from high school prepared for the jobs of the 21st century.

But No Child Left Behind has failed. And this year, with the law coming up for reauthorization, we have a chance to fix it -- a chance we'd better not let slip by.

The heart of the problem is that, instead of measuring every student's growth over time, No Child Left Behind simply measures how many students meet an arbitrary standard of proficiency.

Judging teachers by how many of their students can meet that standard gives them enormous incentive to focus solely on the kids who come into their class either just above or just below the bar. They have no incentive to spend time on the most challenged kids in the class who have little chance of reaching the bar or the most advanced who are in no danger of falling short.

I've never met a teacher who doesn't believe in accountability, but this race to the middle does them -- and their students -- a disservice.

Parents also are finding the tests aren't the useful, diagnostic tools they'd been led to expect. That's because the tests are given once a year, at the end of the school year. One principal I met called them "autopsies"; whatever useful diagnostic information they provide comes too late for teachers to use them to better educate students.

The system needs a major overhaul.

Rather than a single, high-stakes test at the end of the year, we should have multiple diagnostic tests over the course of every year (like in many Minnesota schools). And rather than simply asking whether a student has achieved a certain level, the tests should be flexible enough to measure how far a student has progressed.

Teachers should be able to use test results to adapt plans and tailor them to the individual needs of students. And those teachers should be recognized for the growth they help students achieve over the course of the year.

A fifth-grade teacher who brings a struggling student from a second-grade reading level to a fourth-grade reading level is a hero, not a goat.

Another problem is that the No Child Left Behind tests fail to measure skills our kids will need when they enter the work force. When I talk to employers around Minnesota, I always ask what skills they're looking for in employees. One answer I always hear is "critical thinking." The current system doesn't measure that.

We're failing to put enough emphasis on subjects important for 21st century jobs.

Last April, I toured Duluth's Northstar Aerospace, which will need highly trained engineers to expand in the years ahead. Indeed, nearly all of the 30 fastest-growing jobs require science, technology, engineering or math skills. "STEM" skills. But our kids are lagging behind the rest of the world.

Part of the problem is a shortage of effective STEM teachers. That's why I've introduced a bill that would attract and retain excellent, committed STEM teachers by offering them the chance to become master teachers, mentoring others and earning higher salaries.

The good news is there is much bipartisan agreement on the problem and a willingness to work across the aisle on education issues -- like when Republican Orrin Hatch and I teamed up to work on legislation designed to recruit and retain great principals for high-needs schools.

There's no reason we can't find bipartisan solutions. And there's no excuse for failing to reform a system that is flunking.