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NCLB Outrages

U.S. program tells schools to shape up or be privatized:

Byline: bySarah Schmidt

WASHINGTON - There are plenty of cracks in the grand exterior of Eastern Senior High School that hint at trouble.

A few metres from the front steps, a sign warns students that the sale, possession or use of drugs or alcohol within 1,000 feet will result in stiff penalties under District of Columbia laws. When it comes to firearms, the rule is 500 feet. There's a police car parked on one side of the circular driveway at the front entrance of the school, a private security car on the other.

And if you peer through the front doors of the red-brick school built in 1923, there is another sign of trouble: every student must pass through a metal detector before being waved through by the security guard, one of six scattered throughout the building.

But the school's real problems are found in the classrooms.

Eastern is running afoul of the U.S. Department of Education's rules requiring each school show adequate yearly progress on standardized tests in reading and math. The school hasn't met the benchmarks for the past three years, and finds itself on the school district's restructuring list, one of thousands of "failing" public schools across the United States facing a takeover by an outside education management company.

Supporters say this tough-love approach to school reform, outlined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act signed into law in January 2002, raises the bar for students and teachers in long-neglected public schools, particularly in the country's inner cities. Detractors argue high-stakes testing is a poor measurement of student success and should never drive school reform, especially when the benchmarks are arbitrary and punitive.

Experts here eye U.S. approach

As the debate rages south of the border about the merits of this approach to school reform, education experts in Canada are watching with great interest as more provinces turn to standardized testing to measure academic achievement and assess the quality of public schools.

The question is whether any province that puts so much political capital in showing steady increases in test scores will take the next step and issue the same ultimatum to local schools: get those test scores up or risk being taken over by an outside company or reconstituted as a charter school.

"We need to watch out. We can't say that can't happen here," said Ottawa-based education policy analyst Marita Moll.

In the U.S., the march toward the takeover of public schools like Eastern Senior High, serving an overwhelmingly African-American student body, has been a steady one.

Schools that fail get privatized

The No Child Left Behind Act allows each state to set its own grade-level "proficiency" standards and adequate yearly progress benchmarks. Under the law, all students must be "proficient" in English and math by 2014.

To make sure states get there, the federal law outlines consequences for schools failing to show adequate yearly progress to ensure no child is trapped in a school with consistently low test scores.

First, school districts must offer students the option of transferring to schools in the district, including charter schools. If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for three years, the school must hire outside tutors, most from for-profit companies, to provide supplemental educational services.

According to a study completed last month by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at the Arizona State University, 23 of the 25 most listed providers are for-profit companies, which operate outside the rigid accountability rules governing schools under the federal legislation. The supplemental educational services provision, supported by federal funds, has the potential to funnel over $2 billion US annually to providers, the study found.

But the biggest opportunity for the private sector will come next year: if a school fails to meet adequate yearly progress benchmarks for four or more consecutive years, it will be subject to replacement of staff, outsourcing of operations, reconstitution as a privately operated charter school and subject to a takeover by so-called Education Management Organizations.

"They're called EMOs after the HMOs in health care. Given what the HMOs have done to our health-care system, that ought to be a cautionary tale," said Gerald Bracey, author of the study and professor of education at George Mason University.

The most dramatic component of school reform in the United States -- the takeover of public schools by private management companies -- hasn't taken hold north of the border. But the same demand for accountability is being heard across Canada.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, for example, has staked his reputation on the education file on the school system's ability to raise scores on province-wide standardized tests.

Last year, McGuinty announced plans to ensure that 75 per cent of students reach the provincial standard in math and literacy by 2008, up from about 50 per cent. He promised to dispatch "turnaround teams" to help schools with low test scores.

Alberta, an early advocate of standardized testing, introduced a formal accountability framework a decade ago with provincially mandated reporting of provincial test and examination results by school boards.

At the same time, Alberta became the first province to enable the establishment of charter schools, privately operated and governed schools receiving public funding. Local public schools also began allowing parents to send their kids to schools outside their neighbourhood.

Test data offer 'limited' results

Dennis Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, said provinces don't have to go as far as the American model to achieve the same results, as long as there is "contestability" in the system.

"The government's role is do the testing, publicize the results, and let the competition do the rest."

Where Owens sees opportunity, Moll spots trouble.

Moll, editor of the book, Passing the Test: The False Promises of Standardized Testing and research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, cautioned provinces against relying on this limited data generated from narrow provincial tests in reading and math to drive school reform because they only test a small fraction of the skills and knowledge outlined in curricula.

At Eastern Senior High, students and teachers can't focus on this nuance.

Instead, the upbeat banner hanging just inside the front entrance of the school -- Attitude, Attendance, Achievement. Think Straight As -- will be a reminder in September of what they need to achieve to stave off a school takeover next year.

— Sarah Schmidt
Vancouver Sun


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