I have worked for civil rights for all of our citizens since attending my first demonstration, at the age of 3, in the segregated south in Orangeburg, S.C., courtesy of my grandparents. The Sunbeam Bread Company would not hire African-Americans, and so we marched. Today’s civil rights struggle centers on the classroom, where the public schools are supposed to deliver a high-quality public education to all America’s children but many are failing to do so. Too many children of color from impoverished backgrounds, in particular, are condemned to a future without opportunity because of substandard schooling. Rather than growing up feeling part of the larger society, they are increasingly isolated.

Here in the District of Columbia, the public schools failed our children for more than a generation. Ensuring that the next generation is not lost to the poverty, violence and lost opportunities that stalk our neighborhoods means education reform, the problem of educating all of our children in the U.S. has clear moral, global competitiveness, and national security implications.

As a first step, the Obama administration launched the Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative. This was intended to put federal government resources behind states that had made progress reforming their public schools to raise scholastic achievement. The District of Columbia has been a beneficiary of this federal investment, but local and federal policymakers and educators are painfully aware that this in itself is insufficient to bring about the needed change.

The next step for Congress and the present administration is reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act; and the Secretary of Education is approving more “ESEA flexibility” in the meantime. NCLB legislation has provided reformers with some valuable tools — particularly, the requirement to disaggregate data so achievement gaps are detected. It has failed, however, to support the work of some public schools that are delivering outstanding results for their students, primarily because it ignores the primary priority of education: growth in individual student learning.

Under NCLB, schools must achieve “adequate yearly progress” on their state test scores. A series of measures are required of them if they fail to keep up with a timetable that demands that every child is performing at grade level three years from now. Setting realistic goals for student proficiency at the federal level would ensure that schools that are improving get the recognition and support they deserve. It also would better help orient resources and intervention towards those schools that truly are failing their students.

The solution is not to lower the requirements on schools to disclose data on their performance. Rather, it is to intensify the disclosure requirements, while eliminating the unrealistic targets of the original legislation. For example, if we added a requirement to account for the data by gender, we would be required to address how boys of color are performing, even in schools that are touted as doing very well, but whose race/ethnicity data is boosted by the performance of girls of color. Better still, the data should not be limited to one year-end, high-stakes test at a few grade levels, but collected at many points during the child’s school career. The data can then be used to implement corrective action for each child — the only real benefit of testing. Data on college-acceptance and matriculation and/or career readiness also should be required of every public high school.

Right now, the whole nation — not just the District of Columbia — is falling behind internationally. Take the Program for International Student Assessment, which is administered internationally to 15-year-olds every three years, among the 34 nations who belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. students scored 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science. Our nation likes to pride itself on coming in first but this is an indicator of how our economy will perform in the years and decades ahead. Worse it conceals outcome disparities, whereby minority and disadvantaged students lag their peers in state tests.

Despite important recent gains, only around 50 percent of D.C. students in charters and 43 percent of their peers in D.C. Public Schools are at grade level in reading and math. More extensive and detailed formative, as opposed to high stakes, testing could help identify struggling students earlier — and target critical federal and local resources to their needs. In particular, we could better help the students the system fails the most — low-income boys of color. In this way, truly no child would be left behind.

Dr. Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association for Chartered Public Schools and is a veteran civil rights campaigner.


Dr. Ramona Edelin