What the (NCLB) No Child Left Behind Act and the IDEA, the nation’s special education law, can learn from Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

My stepfather often told me that if something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not. P. T. Barnum put it this way, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” As the Madoff story unfolded, many of us wondered—how could so many ‘affluent and smart’ investors and charities put all their money in one basket and believe it could earn 12% year after year after year? Perhaps they just wanted to believe.

So now, let’s turn to the NCLB. Another wish dream? It mandates that all children be proficient in reading, writing, and math by June 2014. We want to believe that all children can learn the same standards and that education is the great equalizer. So we make the leap. We mandate it in federal law!

Yes, this law has done a lot of good. It has helped many children reach higher than we might have expected, and focused on academics for all children. All to the good. But, as with all laws, the challenge comes at the edges, where the fit is not perfect and the details build cynicism and threaten to destroy the enterprise. The law’s mandate for ALL is off the mark. It focuses on four student groups: those in poverty, members of racial minorities, non-English speakers, and SWD. The law encourages heightened focus on some groups that who are close to passing (the ‘gap’ kids), but not on others, including bright kids who passed these tests long ago.

As I write this, my local paper reports that several schools here—one of our nation’s education bright spots—“need improvement” because two groups, SWD and English language learners did not reach the standard. This ‘news’ is repeated in communities around the nation. You can’t have 12% growth investment year after year (unless you live in a pipedream). You can’t have all children meet the same standards, year after year, unless you jiggle the numbers.

Alas, some jiggling is happening. For example, Massachusetts, known for its excellent standards and very test, allows invalidating ‘accommodations’—without reporting that fact. Thus, some SWD have ‘read-alouds’ on reading tests (and adult reads the test to the student). Some students are provided with calculators on questions that measure calculating. Then they pass! What does that pass mean? Who does it help?

Other states have abandoned the effort to measure calculation skills altogether. Everyone can use a calculator! Some allow ‘read-alouds’ after the primary grades, even when measuring ‘reading.’ Others lower the bar for all and ‘dumb down’ the curriculum—all in the name of all means all. How can we then know if students can read and write and add and subtract?

I was moved by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call to stop lying to students–when we lower standards and pronounce students ready to graduate from high school–even as they still lack basic skills. A breath of fresh air!

When faced with impossible targets, contortions occur. We no longer measure what matters. Very sad.

We want to believe that miracles come true. But they should not be the basis of public policy. A dream is no more appropriate in the education than in the investment world. I urge the Obama team, in reviewing and reauthorizing the NCLB, to set realistic measurements for all children, including the move to a ‘value added’ scoring system. Teachers and students need to work together for true education accountability, not simply for numbers that look good but fall apart upon review.

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line, DianeRavitch.net, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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