Richard Rothstein is a Prospect contributing editor, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
The vast inequalities in American society, even in prosperous times, include correlated inequalities in income, wealth, security, health, occupation, and education. We need policies to remedy each of these inequalities; addressing any one of them will impact the others. Raising the education and skill levels of youth from more disadvantaged backgrounds is a valuable end in itself as well as a way to improve the quality of our civic and cultural life. It will also enable these youth to compete with middle-class youngsters for more skilled and better paying jobs.
The next president has a unique opportunity to start from scratch in education policy, without the deadweight of a failed, inherited No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The new president and Congress can recapture the "small d" democratic mantle by restoring local control of education, while initiating policies for which the federal government is uniquely suited -- providing better achievement data and equalizing the states' fiscal capacity to provide for all children.
Last fall and again in the spring, the government administered a standardized literacy and math test to all children in the Head Start program. It's being given again this year. Four-year-olds are asked to count objects, name alphabet letters and simple geometrical shapes, understand directions, characterize facial expressions, and identify animals, body parts, and other objects in pictures.
State and federal law assume that the quality of public education can be gauged by the number of students who reach the "proficiency" mark on a standardized test. Indeed, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law provides serious penalties for schools that fail to make sufficient annual gains in these numbers. It is a terribly misguided policy.