Open to the Public: Speaking Out on NCLB
Ohanian Comment: The Public Education Network conducted hearings inviting the public to comment on NCLB. The text of the resulting report contains detailed, powerful condemnation of the law from parents, students and community activists. But then PEN concludes from this that some people and groups are more concerned about avoiding the law than with using it to address deep problems in the public schools. This is unwarranted and outrageous. Being against the law does not mean one is refusing to address deep problems in the public schools. On the contrary. The law ignores these very deep problems.
For starters, read Testing and Accountability
and see how it compares with PEN's conclusions.
People who have read Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools will not be surprised.
Now PEN is offering another NCLB survey (28 questions). Decide for yourselves whether it's worth your time. Here's a sample:
One of the major goals of NCLB is to close the academic achievement gap among children of different racial, ethnic, or economic groups. Select those provisions of the law that are essential in closing the gap. (Select all that apply)
Highly qualified teachers
Rigorous academic standards
Tests aligned with standards
Testing of students in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school in reading, math and science
Reporting of test scores for groups of students based on race and ethnicity, income, English language proficiency, and disability
Publication of test scores and other data about district and school performance
Strong parental involvement
Adequate funding and resources
Ability of a child to transfer to another public school if their school does not meet state academic expectations
Tutoring for students in schools that do not meet state academic expectations
Conclusion: Messages to Policy Makers from the Hearings
So far, this report provides a summary of ideas, opinions, and stories taken directly from the testimony about NCLB. The PEN hearings, however, revealed issues not specific to the federal law but certainly relevant—even essential—to achieving its goals.
The public wants to talk about the “big picture” that is public education, freely and openly. Through the hearings, they had an opportunity to extend beyond a particular local problem and share their concerns, and also to have a platform for their passions, whether it was school libraries, or funding for Even Start, or opposing the access of military recruiters to high school lists. To the witnesses, the hearing officers represented a link from their hopes to policymakers they would never have a chance to meet. Their testimony turned into several crucial messages for these policymakers.
* Frustrations directed at NCLB, especially over funding, stem from inadequate state actions. The
poor facilities, old textbooks, unprepared teachers,
as well as budget cuts that were devastating some schools, result from years of under-investment in public education. Not by design, but also not surprising, all eight states where hearings were
held were—or recently had been—in the throes of school finance lawsuits brought by school districts. Witnesses tended to expect the support from
NCLB to do more than possible, even if fully
funded, but that probably is because local and
state sources have never been sufficient. The
fiscal year 2005 federal budget provides even less NCLB funding to almost every school; only the highest poverty schools received increases. Now
that federal mandates and their ensuing costs
cover every school, not just the most
impoverished, it will be up to states to fill in the
gaps. If state policymakers avoid addressing this problem, they risk further frustrating a public that
is finding its voice.
* The general lack of understanding by many
witnesses about the sources of funding for public education reflects another issue—truly inadequate communications. It is understandable that the
public does not have a full grasp of the 1,200
pages of NCLB federal law and 3,000 pages of
federal regulations concerning it. There are certain assurances in the law, however, that parents and communities will receive reliable, consistent information about the essentials of school improvement such as teacher quality and data on school achievement. The testimony revealed that neither parents nor communities knew enough to develop informed understandings of school
progress. Even students seemed left in the dark
about the underlying reasons for accountability
and testing. What also became obvious in the
hearings is that the American people do not
understand the public education system very well.
* They are not clear about what level makes what decisions, whether it is about funding or selection of assessments. The language used to communicate with parents and communities often is inarticulate and unclear. Yet, the outpouring of feelings and passion for good schools at the PEN hearings indicates there is a deep well of support for public schools, if people have enough sound information.
It also is important for policymakers to remember that three-fourths of the audience for information about schools has no personal way of getting that information because they have no school-age children. To enable them to act responsibly toward the schools as a common good requires thoughtful and thorough communications.
* Communities, parents, and advocacy groups have the power to insist that states monitor the implementation of NCLB. The law supports their demands in many areas including parent involvement, teacher quality, and reporting to the public. The testimony at the PEN hearings and the public controversy over NCLB indicate that some people and groups are more concerned about avoiding the law than with using it to address deep problems in the public schools. While NCLB represents an unprecedented top-down strategy that states are responsible for carrying out, it also encourages grassroots involvement. It offers policymakers and the public education system an opportunity to create a public
dialogue about what qualities the community wants schools to foster in children, what values it wants to guide schooling, and what roles everyone should be playing to support children as they grow into adulthood. Depending on the spirit with which policymakers go about implementing the law, this opportunity could become the most valuable tool they have for assuring excellent schools for all.
Public Education Network
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES