Shouldn't Somebody Have to Intervene?

If a low-income child is trapped in a school that has been failing its children for years, shouldn't someone in a responsible position act to intervene?

What about the young children who are struggling to master English? Their elementary school may be performing well for most of its students, but hasn't seen fit to make sure that its teachers get the training they need to be effective with English learners -- leaving those children far behind their peers. Shouldn't somebody have to make sure the teachers get the training they need?

Or the high-achieving black eighth-grader who, like his counterparts all over the country, doesn't get placed in Algebra I because his teachers and counselors think it might be too hard? Shouldn't the adults who run his school district act to ensure that he is treated the same way as other high achievers, with the same opportunities to learn the most challenging material?

Most parents would answer with a resounding yes: There's an obligation for adults in schools and districts to act. Parents are doing their part, and I think most would agree that schools and school districts, as responsible stewards of taxpayer funds, also have a responsibility to act to make sure their children get a good education.

But right now, Congress is signaling that action is optional. While the bill is called "Every Child Achieves" and carries with it billions of dollars to help schools serve these very same children, it lacks any real requirement -- never mind urgency -- of action for "every child".

The bill does, however, keep some safeguards in place. States have to set their achievement and graduation-rate goals -- both overall and for the groups of children who are the focus of the federal dollars: low-income children, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. And performance against those goals must matter in school rating systems, along with any other quality measures states choose to include.

Unfortunately for children, the goal-setting and reporting does not come with a clear expectation of action in chronically low-performing schools and schools that consistently fail any group of children. States would be required to identify some schools for intervention and support, but the bill is not clear that chronic low-performers and those that consistently underperform for low-income, black, or brown students must be among them.

This allows children who are languishing in low-performing schools -- or schools that are low-performing for students like them -- to continue to languish.

Sure, it would be great if we were at the point where neither zip code nor the circumstances of a child's birth had much effect on her opportunities to succeed. But the current numbers tell a terrifying story of squandered talent.

The most recent round of federal data collection revealed that:

  • Roughly half of black, Latino, and American Indian fourth-graders couldn't even read at the Basic level, compared with only 1 in 5 white fourth-graders.
  • Only 20 percent of low-income eighth-graders were proficient in math -- less than half the proficiency rate of more advantaged students.
  • Among high school seniors, almost 4 in 10 students from low-income families lack even basic reading skills.
  • And students who are black, Latino, or American Indian are dropping out of high school at twice the rate of white and Asian students.

Yes, these numbers are better than they were in 2001, when Congress sent a strong message to the nation's schools that business as usual was no longer acceptable.

But we are nowhere near delivering on the promise of a quality education for every child. We can't let adults off the hook for failure to take action. The time to act is now.