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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Goals Lauded, But Practicality Falls Short

Sid Glassner, Executive Director of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education (VSSE) based in the Brandon area, agreed that the law does not focus on the individual needs of students.

“Any objective that is focused on moving the mass of people at the same pace at the same time will never work,” Glassner said. “It’s not until schools learn to personalize education that we will move forward.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series focusing on the local impact of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, an education bill passed in 2002.

LEICESTER — Five miles north of Brandon on Route 7, set among a few houses and rural countryside and behind an old one-room schoolhouse, lays a small L-shaped building where 80 children from kindergarten to sixth grade go to learn. They gather in the few colorfully decorated rooms or share cafeteria space to learn music, practice speech or choose a book from the closet-size library. Book bags, coats and a portable greenhouse line the hall. The principal works out of a small one-room office.

Leicester Central School may seem too small to be affected by the politicians in our nation’s capital, but since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind bill (NCLB) into law on Jan. 8, 2002, the school has faced the day-to-day challenge of how to better educate their students while also meeting the law’s requirements.

But the struggle to meet federal mandates is not new for the school’s administration. In fact, No Child Left Behind reinstated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed by Congress in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. ESEA’s goal was to improve education for poor and minority students in order to lower the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and those from more affluent backgrounds.

“It’s one of those cycles that we go through,” said Carol Eckels, Leicester school principal, who has worked hard to help the school meet state standards last year after being placed on the “in need of improvement” list for the two previous years.

The ESEA led to a movement in the 1980s toward standardized testing as a way of measuring teaching effectiveness. According to Jonathan Miller-Lane, Middlebury College professor of teacher education, the 1983 document Nation at Risk influenced the federal and state governments to try to determine the quality of schools by whether they reached certain standards.

The report claimed the nation had declared war on itself by not dealing with the problems in the educational system. “The docu­ment set the tone for what you’re seeing now, 20 years later. We’re still in the grip of a Nation at Risk,” said Miller-Lane.

The No Child Left Behind Act promised a renewed commitment to lowering the achievement gap by requiring states to determine a level of achievement in reading and math that all students would have to meet in 12 years (by 2014). Even though standardized testing existed before the law, No Child Left Behind placed stronger accountability on schools by giving repercussions for those schools that did not meet standards.

The law was championed with claims that it would offer state and local governments more flexibility with federal money, expand options for parents, and focus on proven educational methods. The goal of NCLB was to provide a framework by which states could ensure that all students achieved proficiency.

Most people agree that the commitment to “leaving no child” behind is a worthy objective.

William Mathis, Rutland Northeast Superintendent who has researched the financial and assessment aspects of the NCLB Act, noted that the law “has really exposed to public scrutiny that our poor kids are not getting the great opportunities that they should in our democracy.

“In industrialized countries,” Mathis continued, “we’re last or next to last in terms of equity. That’s a great moral wrong. If we believe in democracy and the opportunity of every kid to get a slash of the American pie, we can’t have that. NCLB has exposed this problem.”

The problem for critics of NCLB is not the goals, but rather how the law tries to achieve those goals. Miller-Lane says that the overarching problem with NCLB is that the federal government seeks one program that will fit all schools. The structure designed in the law does not respect the individual needs of students and local schools, whatever their circumstances.

“What becomes confused is standardization verses standards,” he said, “The government thinks that every child has to take the same medicine regardless of what may be ailing him as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s what we want, everyone go and figure it out.’”

Sid Glassner, Executive Director of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education (VSSE) based in the Brandon area, agreed that the law does not focus on the individual needs of students.

“Any objective that is focused on moving the mass of people at the same pace at the same time will never work,” Glassner said. “It’s not until schools learn to personalize education that we will move forward.”

A standardized educational program is precisely what Leicester school has tried to avoid. Administrators have insisted on maintaining a balanced curriculum while also focusing on improving areas that will help students pass state tests.

Eckels explained: “We really try to say, ‘Okay, testing has a certain place. We know that there are always areas of instruction that we can improve on, but we’re not going to focus on testing to the extent that it’s going to hurt the children.’”

Leicester school faces the greater challenge of providing the same educational opportunities as more affluent schools in order to achieve the same standards, but doing so with less money.

The school receives additional aid as a Title I school, but according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the Bush Administration’s proposal of $103,800 in Title I aid for Fiscal Year 2005 for Leicester School, is 38.18 percent lower than the $167,900 needed to fully fund the program. This figure is based on the law’s definition of “fully funded,” which says that each child living in poverty is eligible to receive an extra 40 percent of the state’s average per-pupil spending. In fact, in Fiscal Year 2003, Leicester Central School’s per-pupil spending was $6,615 compared to the state’s average of $10,414.

A lack of funds means that Leicester Central School might not have enough money to continue recently added programs that have helped them reach state standards, including full day kindergarten and summer school.

“When the law was first passed, my initial concern was, are we going to get caught in it,” said Eckels, “We have a lot of children who don’t go to preschool and at that time we had a half-day kindergarten program. A significant number of children came into the school unprepared and with a high level of language needs.”

Without additional monetary support, Leicester teachers must work harder in the classroom to help students reach the same standards as schools that have the funds to offer students more academic support.

The school also deals with an overcrowded building, which can distract students and limit space for additional resources. The town has voted against building proposals for the past few years. One reason is that many town members cannot afford an increase in property taxes to pay for expanding or building a new school.

“We’re going to have to find a different way to finance the school,” Glassner said, adding that if the federal government wants to put a punitive standardized system in place, then it has to commit more than 7 percent of federal dollars to education, especially in districts that cannot afford to pay more in taxes.

“One of the issues is that the federal government has no authority over schools. They get their authority by passing bills that claim to give schools money for doing certain things,” said Eckels, “Now they’ve made these laws that are costing money, but they are not giving us the money to implement them.”

Many states and organizations agree that more money is needed to meet NCLB’s standards.

Mathis, for one, believes that the cost of implementing No Child Left Behind is not worth the benefits of continuing to receive federal aid.

He concluded in a study of Vermont schools that while the federal government gives the state $51.6 million, $158.2 million is needed to help the 46 percent of Vermont students who are failing to meet Vermont’s standards. He determined that $149.5 million is needed to provide remedial educational assistance and $8.7 for testing costs and lost instructional time.

Mathis also conducted a study of several states and concluded that the federal government needs to increase its education budget by 29.5 percent, or $140 billion to $150 billion.

“Any time you write a contract in which it is going to cost you three times what you’re giving, that isn’t good business,” said Mathis.

As a member of VSSE, Mathis will help bring a lawsuit against the government under the premise that if the government wants all students to meet certain standards, then it must provide enough money to counter home and community environments that affect student performance.

The federal government, for the most part, has responded to these studies by suggesting that the problem is not a lack of funding, but rather how current funds are being distributed in schools. They point to the law’s claim that it increases state and local governments’ flexibility with federal funding and say that schools should use current funds more effectively.

Richard Cate, Vermont Education Commissioner, says that although more funding would improve education, “there are never enough resources to meet the needs of all children. What we need to do is use the resources we have to the best of our advantage.”

He also says that the law is designed more for urban schools where greater differences between poor and affluent schools exist and that the law provides flexibility for states with high achievement rates like Vermont.

While three Vermont legislators have proposed to drop out of NCLB because of the additional costs in complying with the law, Cate claims that the state cannot afford to lose the money and says schools instead should work within the framework of the law to meet the individual needs of Vermont’s students.

“I believe that we are complying with the law, but doing it Vermont’s way. You can’t drop out of the federal requirements. The only thing that would happen is that we would lose $50 million and we cannot afford to do that,” said Cate, “The issue is really how we implement the law and I think there’s flexibility in how it’s written.”

Glassner disagrees that the law can continue as written. “Leicester school is an impoverished school and I would assume that any kind of money would enrich the lives of the students, but that has nothing to do with the nature of what the education program is,” he said, “No matter how much money we receive, No Child Left Behind doesn’t work in the best interest of kids.”

In Leicester school, the administration has tried to downplay the law’s impact. “There are battles in this country that are bigger than me and I’m not going there,” said Eckels, “We do what it is we have to do to meet the requirements of the law, but our first focus is on the children.”

Public Response – sidebar

Like policy-makers, the public is divided about the quality of their local schools and the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) surveyed 1,309 adults nationwide from May to June 2004, and found that the quality of public schools concerns most Americans, but how to fund and ensure accountability is mixed. Here are the survey’s results:

Quality of public schools:

74%: Quality of public schools are a concern.

52%: Only some modifications are necessary.

45%: Schools need either major change (30%) or complete overhaul (15%).

The majority give their local school a rating of B- or C.
Awareness of NCLB

20% do not know enough about the NCLBA to form an opinion about it.

Those who do know have an opinion:

38% unfavorable

39% favorable

Policy Makers: 41% favorable to 47% unfavorable.

Only 17% believe that NCLB reforms have led to changes in schools.


80%: Schools need greater accountability.

32%: Enforce Accountability by tighter control on how education dollars are spent.

40%: Enforce accountability by teachers and administrators listening to parents and following through to ensure their concerns are addressed.

30%: Biggest education problems are about money.

51%: Biggest problems are other factors (lack of parental involvement, lack of discipline, ineffective teachers and administrators, inappropriate curricula, etc).

40% support equity model (states should make an effort to ensure that an equal amount of money is spent on every student).

37% support adequacy model (states should make an effort to ensure that each school receives the funds necessary for each of its students to succeed).

Education Policy Makers: 41% equity model, 39% adequacy model

50%: Increase amount of school funding from states even if it means an increase in state taxes.

44%: Prefer state taxes do not increase even if it means no additional funding for education.

Education policy makers: 52% support state and 61% support federal tax increases to finance education.

Confidence in how money for education is spent:

61%: Confident that additional money will lead to improved education quality.

38%: Not confident that additional money will improved the quality of education.

44%: Share of federal and state budget spent on education should increase.

79% of adults would favor increasing local taxes to provide additional funding for schools if they were confident that the money would go to schools and not to other items in local budget.

Only 57% would favor local tax increase without the added assurance.
Carol Eckels, Leicester school principal, said that the parents’ main concern when they received a letter informing them that the school had failed to meet state standards was whether their child was improving. Eckels responded, “We track every child every year and I can say that maybe we have two children in the whole school who did not improve last year. They may not improve as much as the state wants them to, but we don’t have kids falling through the cracks.”

— Sarahh Bzdega
Addison Independent


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