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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind Act: Facts and Fiction

Ohanian Comment: The experts quoted here are decidedly in the pro-NCLB camp. It would be very worthwhile to ask other experts their interpretation of each assertion below.

The No Child Left Behind Act, in its second year, is the most ambitious federal effort to raise achievement in public schools in 38 years. It is also one of the most complicated education laws passed by Congress, leading to a host of myths and misinterpretations. Here are 10 statements about the law that experts say are heard often but are not firmly anchored in reality.
The experts are carefully chosen. No expert who believes that NCLB is a trainwreck about to happen is heard from.

1. No Child Left Behind is a Republican Party plot to undermine public schools.

Some supporters of the law have little affection for the way public schools are run at the moment and would be happy if parents could spend tax dollars -- in the form of vouchers -- to send their children to private schools. But the intellectual and political fathers of the No Child Left Behind approach, which focuses on regular testing of students and labeling of schools that do not improve, were mostly southern Democratic governors in the 1980s. James B. Hunt Jr. in North Carolina, Richard W. Riley in South Carolina and future president Bill Clinton in Arkansas led a movement to lure high-tech industries to their states by raising the level of instruction and learning in their schools through testing.
Southern Democrats linked to the Business Roundtable.

2. With this law, the federal government is spending more on education and giving local schools resources they never had.

The law's critics acknowledge that the federal government is breaking records on education spending. Still, that money represents only about 7 percent of total government spending on public education. The majority of funding comes from states and local governments. Also, the law is forcing schools that accept federal funds to spend more on transportation, administrative staffing and other requirements, which gobble up much, if not all, of the extra federal money.
See William Mathis article in the May 2003 Phi Delta Kappan for figures on what NCLB costs states.

3. The law's goal of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 is impossible.

True, say its framers, but emphasizing that fact misses the point. The 100 percent goal was simply a target, an admittedly unreachable goal designed to motivate schools to stretch themselves to do better, such as scientists trying to cure cancer or gardeners hoping to grow the perfect tomato. The creators of the law say they knew they would have to revise it in a few years. That, they say, is what legislators do--take their best shot with the votes they have and come back later to fix the rough spots. States mostly ignored earlier legislation with less stringent requirements.
The mendacity of this claim defies description. The political "best shot"--a formula for success that they admit is deeply flawed--labels children and schools as failures.

4. The law forces state and local governments, who in the American system run public schools, to march to the federal government's tune.

KSA-Plus Communications, an educational consulting firm based in Arlington, says the law gives the states great flexibility to define their own proficiency standards. Although each state must use the same federal formula for calculating which schools are making adequate yearly progress under the law, their starting points may be very different. In South Carolina this year, only 17.4 percent of elementary and middle school students had to score at the proficient level and above on a standardized English test; in Delaware, it was 57 percent, and in Colorado, about 70 percent.

KSA's client list is interesting:

5. The law encourages diverse schools with significant numbers of minority students to help each of their racial and ethnic groups improve.

That is the idea, with the progress of African American, Hispanic and limited-English students judged separately, as are special education students and those from low-income families. But many of the more diverse schools have had trouble meeting the law's standards. Elementary schools in affluent neighborhoods often have so few low-income or minority children that those students are not counted as a separate group under the federal rules, while a diverse school can be labeled as needing improvement if any single subgroup fails to meet the annual target based on standardized test results.

6. Failing to meet the adequate yearly progress standard in the law means a school's students are not achieving.

Not necessarily. KSA-Plus Communications notes that in Georgia, 536 of the 846 schools that did not make adequate yearly progress this year were so labeled not because their scores were too low, but because not enough students in some categories showed up to take the tests. The law says that if 95 percent of students in an ethnic, income or other category are not tested--because of absenteeism or other reasons--then that school misses its target.

7. The law is keeping a lot of hard-working high school seniors from graduating.

That is not the fault of the new federal law. High school exit tests that students must pass to receive diplomas are required in some states--such as Virginia and, perhaps starting in 2009, Maryland--but are not part of the federal law.

True, but framers of the law must take responsibility for the climate of hysteria they create.

8. Good schools that meet their state achievement targets are unfairly labeled as needing improvement under the law.

State standards often rate schools on their schoolwide average scores or passing rates, so a school with many successful students is not penalized for scores of a lesser number of low-performing students. The new federal law, however, says schools must also be judged on the performance of each subgroup. The Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group promoting student achievement, notes that George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, which has many high-achieving non-Hispanic white students, met the Virginia state targets, even though it has a gap of 47 percentage points between the average state test scores of its non-Hispanic white and African American students.

Education Trust, another unbiased observer.

9. Schools that have made great progress are unfairly labeled as needing improvement.

That happens in some cases, but many schools are protected by the safe harbor provision of the law that recognizes improvement by schools that have not reached the annual state targets. The Education Trust said that T.T. Minor Elementary School in Seattle had only 30 percent of its students proficient in reading in 2003, well below the Washington state target of 56 percent. It still made adequate yearly progress under the safe harbor rule because it improved from 2002, when only 15 percent of its students were proficient in reading.

Still waiting for an institution not in NCLB's camp to be quoted.

10. There are enough highly qualified teachers to meet the law's goals if school districts will pay them adequate salaries.

Some studies suggest that there are as many well-qualified teachers not working in education at the moment as there are in the classroom. Persuading them to go to some rural and inner-city districts is not the same thing as keeping them there, however, which takes both more pay and more money to improve working conditions. A report by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy said the rural district of Fort Lupton, Colo., is typical. It "cannot match the higher salaries of larger districts in the area, and highly qualified teachers often transfer out of the district," the report said.

— Jay Mathews
No Child Left Behind Act: Facts and Fiction
Washington Post


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