NCLB Establishes a Caste System
The federal law that requires every student to be competent in reading and math by 2014 is unrealistic, underfunded, and could be scrapped or scaled back by the next presidential election after too many schools are labeled failures, educators say.
Enacted two years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act is the Bush administration's plan to improve education by holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores.
Schools have 11 years to make every student, including those in special education, proficient in reading and math or face penalties.
Depending on the number of consecutive years a school fails to hit targets, sanctions range from allowing students to transfer to better-performing public schools to paying transportation costs to a school of a student's choice.
Given the difficulties of achieving the law's sweeping goals, some educators believe the legislation is really a ploy to destroy public education and will create an exodus of upper-class students to private and parochial schools.
''Ultimately you will see a caste system,'' said Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Lewis. ''You will have the public schools for the poor and disenfranchised and the private schools for the rich and privileged.''
Already, teachers unions and educators are lobbying federal officials for more flexibility in the law, which although heralded for not letting educators off the hook for low-performing poor and minority students, is criticized as the largest example ever of federal intrusion into local schools.
''The question will become whether this law is credible and relevant to what is actually happening in public schools,'' said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union that represents 163,000 teachers. ''We believe changes are needed to provide some sanity.''
He also said the law does not consider the role of parents in their child's education.
''It's looking at perceptions of school failure in a vacuum,'' Keever said.
Educators are understandably frustrated because every new president brings his own educational reform agenda to town. It usually involves a plethora of policies, programs and expectations, and dismantles years of local changes dictated by the previous administration.
''The whole thing could backfire,'' said William Nelson, Bethlehem's director of student services. ''Ten years after this thing goes away, we could still be trying to rebuild public education.''
No Child Left Behind uses scores from one reading and math test plus graduation and attendance rates to determine a school's rating. Last year as well as this school year in Pennsylvania, 35 percent of a school's students must score proficient or above in math and 45 percent in reading for a school to meet academic targets.
The bar will steadily rise over a decade until it reaches 100 percent in both subjects for all students, an objective some educators say would take a miracle.
''As an idealist, I would like to believe that's possible,'' said Lehigh University education professor George White. ''As a realist, there are always going to be some children in the system that won't get to that level. This isn't Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average.''
The recent release of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores — the tests used as the No Child Left Behind gauge — doesn't bode well for the future of Keystone State schools.
Results show as many as half of the students failed the reading or math part of the test given in the spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders. Beginning in 2005, every child in Grades 3 through 8 will take the PSSA in reading and math.
''By 2014, virtually every school will be labeled failing,'' said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, a nonprofit organization. ''It's probably not a plausible goal that every child can reach the same high level.''
Beth Yonson, assistant superintendent of the Bangor Area School District, said the law doesn't take into account intelligence levels of students.
''The government is saying whether a student is gifted, average or severely mentally retarded, they should be proficient by 2014,'' she said. ''I don't think that's realistic. There will always be a segment that will not achieve on this test.''
High goals for every group
The law also addresses persistent achievement gaps among minority, economically disadvantaged and disabled students by requiring each group — if it has at least 40 students — to also meet the standards.
''If these kids are your students, you have to make sure they're getting the same education,'' said Brian Christopher, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Education. ''We don't want those kids falling through the cracks.''
But if one group falls short, the entire school receives a warning. That's what happened at Parkland High School, where the special education population failed to score at proficiency in reading and math in the PSSA.
''Who could be against every kid being proficient?'' said Parkland Superintendent Gary McCartney. ''But not all of our special education youngsters are going to succeed on that test.''
Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union with 2.7 million members, said special education students follow individualized education plans because they don't learn or express what they know in the same way as other students. To give them the same test as the general population and to expect the same results is ludicrous, he said.
''Some have severe handicaps,'' he said. ''We want them to perform to the best of their abilities, but to hold them to the same standards as a child from a well-educated family in a suburban area is unrealistic.''
Jo Anne Webb of the U.S. Department of Education said consideration is being given to develop an alternative test for ''the 1 percent of severely disabled students'' in the country.
But, she noted, schools still have to show gains.
''Why not have high expectations?'' she said. ''There's nothing wrong with having high expectations because oftentimes they yield high results. You shouldn't assume just because a child is from a different background or the color of their skin is a certain shade they can't perform. That's a disservice to the child. You have to make the assumption all children have the ability to learn if you put them in the right environment with the right resources.''
'Largest unfunded mandate'
Educators say they're all for high expectations if there are enough resources attached to the federal law to fulfill them.
''It's the largest unfunded mandate in public education,'' said Lehigh University's White. ''There are very few dollars that follow this legislation.''
Even U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who helped write the No Child Left Behind legislation with the Bush administration, said the president failed to allot enough money in the bill for schools to be successful. More money is needed for the additional testing and to pay for potential sanctions such as tutoring and reorganization.
''He still supports the reforms, but he has concerns that the full promise of the bill won't be realized unless the administration steps up to the plate,'' said Jim Manley, the senator's press secretary.
Webb said Bush's proposed 2004 budget contains more money for education than ever before.
''Spending has steadily gone up,'' she said. ''The difference with this administration is we'll give you the money, but we want to see the results.''
Some of the No Child Left Behind mandates are funded by the states, an additional problem for Pennsylvania schools since the governor and Legislature are deadlocked over education spending and haven't passed a new budget.
''If they pass a bare-bones budget, what are we going to do?'' said the state Education Department's Christopher. ''There are things we have to do because of NCLB. We have to provide assistance to school districts, but if it's not in the budget, we're going to be hard-pressed.''
The proficiency judgment call
Schools that consistently fail to improve face penalties ranging from hiring private firms to tutor students to complete reorganization and being converted to a charter school.
States set their own proficiency levels in reading and math. To avoid penalties, some states such as Michigan and Colorado readjusted their standards so more students would get passing scores.
Texas is of particular interest, because that's where Bush, when he was governor, launched many of the initiatives in No Child Left Behind. The state recently has been on the hot seat for falsifying dropout rates to avoid federal sanctions and reducing the number of questions students have to answer correctly to pass the tests.
''There is no objective thing called proficiency,'' said Schaeffer of Fair Test. ''It's a function of human judgment. Different states make different judgments.''
Pennsylvania isn't pushing its schools as hard on standardized test scores as other states in the early years, Christopher said.
''Our curve is a little different than what the federal government recommended,'' he said. ''We wanted to start out a little flatter so some of our programs can take hold. It gets steeper at the end.''
Ultimately, however, proficiency is determined by one test, an unreliable and ineffective way to chart progress, educators say.
''The error that is manifested in the law is to suggest that a single test is the best way to determine whether or not everyone is proficient,'' said Parkland's McCartney. ''I would take a leap of faith and say not all legislators test well. One-size-fits-all doesn't work. It never has.''
But schools have to start somewhere, said Denise Torma, East Penn School District's director of research and evaluation.
''It's moving people in the direction of meeting the needs of all students and that's a good thing,'' she said. ''But given the needs we have with each disaggregated subgroup, for them to be reaching 100 percent proficiency as well as every other student, that's a tough goal to reach.''
A watered-down curriculum could be the unintended consequence of a law driven by penalties, professor White said.
''People are beginning to use the student data to guide curricular and instructional decisions,'' he said. ''That concerns many of us in education. We are narrowing our curricular focus to take the test and losing some of the richness that has historically been part of a good curriculum.''
Some states, though, aren't dramatically altering their educational direction. Instead, they are banking on the No Child Left Behind Act being repealed or modified.
For example, Ohio's plan to make all of its students proficient in reading and math plots a slow rise in achievement until 2010 when average yearly gains hit 10 percentage points, growth that has never been seen in education research, said Schaeffer of Fair Test.
''Sooner or later this is going to blow up, and when it does, Bush won't be in office,'' he said.
No Child Left Behind Act is admirable but unrealistic, educators say
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES