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NCLB Outrages

Get Behind No Child: Saving the Baby and Bathwater of a Bad Bill

The right sees it as an expansion of federal power. The left sees it as an attempt to privatize public education. Unions and management are united in opposing it. It is full of flaws, it is controversial, and it is disruptive. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dump No Child Left Behind. Nothing else is bold enough or bites enough to level the educational playing field for millions of poor children of color. The California Department of Education assures us that its growth model is up to that task. But that is demonstrably not so.

California’s expectations are lower and slower. Whereas NCLB mandates 100 percent student proficiency by 2014, California gives schools more time to reach a lesser goal—approximately 60 percent proficient. To illustrate, even if Harding Elementary School were to make all of the model’s growth targets, it would take 50 years to reach the prescribed goal of Academic Performance Index (API) 800. Santa Barbara Junior High would not reach API 800 until 2046. Schools may outperform the state’s expectations. But that would be to their credit, not the policy’s.

When it comes to achievement gaps, the California model is even more permissive. The gap between the white subgroup at Roosevelt Elementary and the Latino subgroup at Harding was 180 API points in 2004. Under the California growth model’s expectations, that gap would still be 158 points in 2105—narrowed by only 22 points in a century. For disparities between student subgroups at the same school, a century becomes eternity. Once a gap, always a gap.

This is stagnation, not growth. If NCLB were discontinued, this so-called growth model would stand in its place. NCLB may be draconian, but the California model is indulgent. These deficiencies would not be all that hard to correct. The larger question is whether there is the political will to do so.

As it’s turning out in practice, even NCLB is a pussycat. Here, for example, is a loophole. SWP, or School-Wide Program, schools are held accountable for measurable gains among all student subgroups—ethnic groups, English learners, and students with disabilities. This is a tough standard. In contrast, schools designated TAS, or Targeted Assistance Schools, are accountable only for the economically disadvantaged subgroup—much easier to swallow. The Santa Barbara district took advantage of this loophole and switched its SWP schools to TAS. The feds later closed the TAS loophole, and currently there’s talk of opportunistically switching Santa Barbara’s schools back to SWP.

NCLB sanctions also leave wiggle room. A core idea of NCLB was to provide the choice of a better public school for disadvantaged children whose educational needs were not being met at their present public school. To get around this, districts take advantage of ambiguities in notification requirements, keeping the national transfer rate around only five percent. At Santa Barbara Junior High, for example, parental choice notices were not sent out until five months after school began. NCLB sanctions also include making free tutoring available to disadvantaged students. That requires reallocating federal funds from existing uses. Many school districts around the country have been reticent, if not resistant. As a result, the vast majority of eligible disadvantaged children are not receiving federal assistance in the form of tutoring. In Santa Barbara, the figure is less than one percent.

Schools can make NCLB’s annual targets and still leave the majority of disadvantaged students behind. For example, Harding could make the target of 24 percent proficient in English language arts and still have 242 economically disadvantaged students (75.6 percent) below grade level. At Santa Barbara Junior High, 315 English learners (73.5 percent) could remain below grade level in math while the target of 26.5 proficient is met. A glass that is one-fourth full is still three-quarters empty.

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program gave hope for millions of children of poverty in America. Forty years and countless billions of dollars later, that hope is unfulfilled. Instead, myriad semi-autonomous micro-interests have formed around local allocations of federal education funds. Untold sums have been used in ways only remotely related to the educational needs of disadvantaged children. NCLB, in contrast, is a rather crude attempt to pressure schools into focusing federal funds on the task of leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students. In my view, there should be no need for pressure to fulfill a moral imperative.

— Bob Noel, School Board member, Emeritus Prof. Political Science UCSB
Santa Barbara Independent


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