Will Katrina Topple the No Child Left Behind Law?
By Elaine M. Garan
The support that greeted the federal No Child Left Behind Act when it was
signed into law almost four years ago is eroding exponentially. Even before the
nation was buffeted by Hurricane Katrina in late August, a backlash against
the law had erupted from a number of sectors, addressing a variety of issues.
In the past year alone, the revolt has included suits filed by the state of
Connecticut and the National Education Association, as well as state
legislation in Utah that seeks to trump the federal law. Dissatisfaction with the No
Child Left Behind Act covers a wide range of issues, from complaints that it is
underfunded to allegations that it is unconstitutional. There are objections
to the inequities of standardized testing and its restrictions on the
curriculum, and to the unfair penalization of teachers and schools for factors outside
their control. There also have been questions about flaws in the scientific
research determining the programs schools can use, as well as alleged conflicts
of interest surrounding the awarding of grants, for the law’s Reading First
In this chaotic year for the No Child Left Behind law, the Bush
administration has expended enormous time and energy scrambling to put out brush fires of
resistance and keep angry states and districts under control. Then, on top of
the already burgeoning rebellion, along came Katrina, bearing with it nearly
insurmountable problems in enforcing accountability standards. These challenges
may well signal the end of No Child Left Behind.
There should no debate about whether or not to grant waivers from federal
accountability requirements for schools and states affected by Hurricanes
Katrina, Rita, and now Wilma. The No Child Left Behind legislation provides for
one-year waivers in the event of natural disasters. Section 1111(b)(3)(C)(vii) of
the law states:
“…the Secretary may provide the State 1 additional year if the State
demonstrates that exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances, such as a natural
disaster or a precipitous and unforeseen decline in the financial re sources of
the State, prevented full implementation of the academic assessments by that
deadline and that the State will complete implementation within the additional
Despite this language in the statute, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret
Spellings initially expressed unwillingness to grant waivers to schools
affected by Katrina. For weeks, schools waited in limbo until she reluctantly agreed
to allow automatic one-year waivers from accountability standards—but only for
those Gulf Coast schools that were completely destroyed or severely damaged.
In effect, the secretary’s compassionate flexibility amounted to this: Schools
that no longer exist and have no students to teach, much less test, will not
be punished by the federal government for failure to meet their
In spite of the exemptions for some Gulf Coast schools, Secretary Spellings
insists that students who are victims of Katrina—no matter where they are, no
matter how disrupted their lives may be, and regardless of how they have
suffered—will still be forced to take high-stakes, standardized tests. Moreover,
those schools that have taken in student evacuees, thereby straining their own
fiscal resources and jeopardizing their own AYP ratings, will not receive
automatic exemptions from federal punishment. Rather, Ms. Spellings has said that
she will decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to waive requirements.
It is yet another empty concession, since there are more than 370,000 student
evacuees, who could be in any of hundreds or even thousands of schools,
scattered across all 50 states.
The Bush administration has been severely criticized for its slow and
inadequate response to Katrina. It could, perhaps, regain credibility by exhibiting
an understanding of the hardships children and schools are experiencing as a
result of the disaster. Why then, given that the law itself allows waivers for “
unforeseen declines in the financial resources of States,” is the
administration so reluctant to grant them? Why the dogged insistence on testing all
displaced and traumatized children and the relentless advance of the “No Child”
law in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe?
The answer, I believe, is this: To acknowledge that Katrina can and will
affect the validity of the law’s accountability criteria is to admit that the law
itself is inequitable.
Consider that the No Child Left Behind law is based on three central
assumptions: (1) Teachers and schools are responsible for 100 percent of student
learning, regardless of individual differences in children’s cognitive abilities
or their emotional problems; (2) the standardized tests that determine a school’
s passing or “needs improvement” status are 100 percent valid as indicators
of student learning and of school and teacher performance; and (3) the goals
of the law are about closing achievement gaps and improving public education.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina assails each of these assumptions. Before
Katrina, the law did not acknowledge, much less forgive, any extenuating,
outside factors such as poverty, physical or emotional abuse, motivation, or even
the ability to speak and read English—all factors that could compromise
student performance on standardized tests. Consequently, the Bush administration
cannot afford to concede that personal trauma can confound the validity of test
scores for Katrina’s victims, because to do so is to concede that the same
factors can affect any student in any school, albeit less visibly and with a less
resounding outcry from the public than we’ve witnessed for the evacuees.
If the federal government agreed to exempt from testing those children who
lost a family member as a result of Katrina, wouldn’t it also be pressured to
exempt children not affected by Katrina who have suffered a similar
life-altering trauma—or others who have suffered from abuse or the challenges of a
physical or mental disability?
And if the administration agreed that being ripped from a familiar setting
and put into a strange school is an extenuating factor for the victims of
Katrina, wouldn’t it also be pressured to apply the same standard to the children
of migrant workers, or children who have been moved from one foster home to
another, or, for that matter, children who are homeless? Then, by logical
extension, wouldn’t the federal government be forced to admit that schools with large
numbers of transient and homeless students cannot be held to the same
standards that more-affluent suburban schools with relatively stable populations are?
Katrina has put federal policy squarely between a rock and a hard place. The
government cannot appear to be compassionate, and yet adhere to a rigid
policy of standardizing education. Compassion is personal. Standardization is not.
If the Bush administration exempted Katrina victims from the additional
pressures of testing, consider another policy conundrum it would face: Since the
No Child Left Behind law is premised on standardization, how would the
government standardize compassion? How would it quantify degrees of trauma in order to
legislate a timeline for the emotional, academic, and economic recovery of
children and for schools?
Would a child who has lost two parents have a longer reprieve from the extra
pressure of standardized testing than a child who has lost only one? Would
the death of a grandparent count for less than that of a parent? Should a child
who has lost a beloved pet merit only a quarter of the sympathy that we extend
to one who has lost a family member and a home? A tenth of the sympathy? None
at all? And if a student lost her home and all her belongings, what degree of
compassionate dispensation would be legislated for her? The same as for those
who have lost family members? Less? None at all?
While we’re at it, who would explain to students exactly how long federal
policy would allow them to “get over it” before a return to the important
business of taking tests? Such decisions truly canonly be made on a case-by-case
basis. They cannot be standardized, decided, and enforced by remote federal
bureaucrats. So for Katrina’s victims, as for all students, the administration
must continue to ignore the problems that consistently confound the validity of
test results for many American children, including those not directly affected
by the Gulf Coast hurricanes.
For the administration to do otherwise would be to negate its own policy by
conceding the fundamental flaws in two assumptions at the very heart of the No
Child Left Behind Act: that teachers are 100 percent responsible for student
learning, and that AYP figures and the standardized-test scores on which they
are based are 100 percent accurate.
Education is part of a system. That system is based on the relationship and
the respective roles of local, state, and federal agencies that should all
work together to do what’s best for children. Within that system, there must be
at least some degree of cohesiveness and some measure of trust among the
constituents—between the districts and the states and between the states and our
The No Child Left Behind law has blown apart those fundamental relationships
as relentlessly as a Category 5 hurricane, shattering what little trust
remained. But this federal legislation is not an act of nature, it is the result of
deliberate acts of incredible arrogance.
Because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, it is now clear that the
callous, remote imposition of impossible standards on traumatized children and
overburdened schools promises nothing but the withdrawal of financial and
emotional support from the very schools and children that need it most. And thus, we
see the challenge to the third basic premise of No Child Left Behind: that
the law’s goals are to close achievement gaps and help public schools.
The No Child Left Behind law was in trouble and facing a popular rebellion
from angry states and districts even before Katrina. What that massive natural
disaster has done is to sharpen our focus. It has forced us to look at the
inequities schools all over the country must deal with on a daily basis, with or
without a hurricane. These are inequities that the law simply ignores. Katrina
has reminded us that schools are made up of students who are unique and who
have very human problems—every last one of them.
The obvious inequities within the system and the unimaginable suffering of
so many have converged into the perfect storm and may well deliver the death
blow to the already critically wounded policy of No Child Left Behind.
Elaine M. Garan is the author of In Defense of Our Children: When Politics,
Profit, and Education Collide. She teaches reading courses at California State
University-Fresno, and can be reached at Egaran@mac.com .
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES