NCLB Grading of Schools is Flawed
PS/MS 279, a school in the Bronx, is on New York City's list of schools "in need of improvement." Only 19% of its students meet state standards in reading. So when Kenia Olivero heard that President Bush had signed an education law that promises students the right to transfer from failing schools, she began to investigate what she could do for her son Kendrick, who was behind in his reading skills. She discovered that fewer than one-third of the students who requested transfers from low-scoring New York City schools actually got them last year. The good schools just didn't have extra space. This year Olivero sent her only son to live with his uncle in suburban Greenwich, Conn., and attend school there. "I wish he could have stayed in the Bronx and just walked to school," Olivero says. "But there was nothing else I could do. The transfer system is hopeless."
When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, he held an elaborate bill-signing ceremony in which he promised that his education reform would bring hope to kids like Kendrick. The law calls for states to test students in third to eighth grade each year in reading and math. In 53% of U.S. schools, which receive direct Federal Government funding because they have large numbers of low-income students, students can transfer to another school or receive free tutoring if their school fails for two years in a row to improve its test scores. Bush's education bill won bipartisan praise 20 months ago, but now Democrats and some congressional Republicans, state governments, school superintendents, principals and teachers are sharply attacking No Child Left Behind. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat who voted for the law, last week called for a suspension of the act's provisions until Bush provides more money for it.
The act is controversial for several reasons. It has labeled thousands of schools across the country unsuccessful - even though many of those schools are doing well by most measures. At the same time, it has not delivered on its promise to allow kids to transfer out of those schools. And it is costing states millions of dollars at a time when their budgets are tight. Yet the law is beginning to improve education for many students, and in most instances, its problems are the unforeseen consequences of well-intentioned regulations. "I think the intent is absolutely good, but did we think through all of the provisions?" says Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Most Democrats were happy to vote two years ago for a bill that created yearly tests in reading and math, demanded improvement for students overall as well as specifically for minority and low-income students and required each school to have certified teachers in every classroom. But they made clear that their support came in part because Bush pledged to dramatically increase the money the Federal Government put into education. In fact, he has allocated about $7 billion more for elementary and secondary schools. But the law adds many extra demands that cost money at a time when states are in the middle of budget crunches. The result is that states like Oregon are cutting foreign-language and music classes while spending more to collect and analyze the test data the law requires. So Democrats say Bush should show his commitment to the law by adding more funding. "We need the President to live up to his promises," says Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat who
worked with Bush to write the law.
Yet the Democrats may be exaggerating the financial difficulties. Many of the problems stemming from No Child have less to do with money and more with the problem of applying ambitious goals across the board, without regard to the particularities of each school. For example, No Child Left Behind considers schools that fail for two years in a row to score high enough on state tests to be failing schools. But the law says that for a school to be successful, not only does the entire student body have to increase its average test scores but several subgroups, such as minorities or students with poor English, must do so too. And the law requires that 95% of students, both overall and in each subgroup, take the test. Thus schools across the country are not meeting standards because a few students missed the tests or because one student minority group did not pass them.
Bush says that's the point: to make schools work to educate their poorest students, who were ignored in the past. But the idea of the act is to focus attention on the worst schools, which states can't do if half are listed as failing. And the bigger problem is keeping up the necessary progress at schools with large concentrations of recent immigrants: Waters Elementary in Chicago, where more than 40% of the students speak English as a second language, improved its scores from 29% of students passing reading exams in 1997 to 48% in 2002, but the school still landed on Illinois' failing-schools list because too few non - English-speaking students passed the reading tests.
Partly because of the law's inflexibility, thousands of schools are not making the grade. About 45% of 7,145 schools in California did not make test goals this year, and more than 1,500 are classified as failing, having fallen short of federal standards two years in a row. In Florida only 408 of 3,177 did well enough this year, meaning thousands of schools there could be failing next year. Parents are especially frustrated about the situation in places where most students are doing well and just one group is struggling. All that is eroding support for the law. "I don't like the label - it threw me off," said Denise Collier, whose four children attend Des Moines's Moulton School, listed as one of Iowa's failing schools.
Declaring a school substandard is supposed to make a community eager to improve it. In some areas, though, parents just ignore their school's failing status. "There was no big uproar because only one middle school [in the county] passed, and we didn't stand out," said Denise Kanyuh, president of the PTA at Durant Middle School in Wake County, N.C., which made the state's failing list.
The large number of failing schools creates the dilemma Kenia Olivero faced in New York City. In Chicago this year more than 19,000 students asked to transfer, but the school system had only about 1,000 spots for them. "It's not like we have a lot of high-performing schools at 50% capacity," said Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago's public schools. "It creates a sense of options being available when they're not."
Despite the difficulties, the act is in many ways producing the results Bush intended. At Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park, Mich., listed as failing because only 33% of kids are reading at grade level, former students are volunteering to work with those who need help. The school has hired six retired teachers to give students additional help and is using federal money to set up a summer tutoring program. "You don't feel good about working in a failing school," says fourth-grade teacher Maureen Line. "But since we were labeled as such, people have really pulled together. I'm here every night until 5:30 p.m., and I see a lot of cars in the parking lot."
Secretary of Education Rod Paige says schools must adjust to the law by getting better at teaching kids with wobbly English and offering students other options, such as tutoring, if they are not able to transfer. But if the problems continue, there is the danger that Congress may consider changing the law to leave behind its toughest demands.
Perry Bacon, Jr.
Struggle of the Classes
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES