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NCLB Outrages

The No Child Left Behind Act: Are We Saving or Ruining Our Public Schools?

Some experts predict that in the next five years the number of restructuring schools may swell to as many as 10,000. In short, NCLB has the potential to put our public schools into a state of chaos and crisis. The author notes that in addition to meddling terribly in schools, Congress's proposed budget for this year actually includes cuts to federal support for public education.

by Danielle Holley-Walker

The No Child Left Behind Act has been in place for almost five years. But ever since its inception, there has been continuous debate about the act's effectiveness and consequences. Now, we are beginning to get answers to some of this speculation, but unfortunately, the answers only raise more questions. There are several emerging trends surrounding the effects of NCLB on public school systems, which the public should be aware of and encourage Congress to address when the act comes up for renewal in 2007.


Probably the most alarming development under NCLB is the number of schools that are being designated as in need of "restructuring," which could lead to massive school closures. NCLB requires states to set up grade-level standards for students to meet in reading, math and science. If enough students in a school fail the yearly state grade-level proficiency tests, the school has not met the requirement for adequate progress.

No Child Left Behind requires states to impose accountability standards on schools that fail to make adequate progress. The first year a school fails to make adequate yearly progress it is designated as in need of "improvement." This designation requires that parents be informed and that students be eligible for supplemental educational services, such as tutoring. If a school fails to make adequate progress for three straight years, then it is designated as in need of "corrective action," which requires additional steps such as implementation of a new school curriculum, and replacement of key school staff. Finally, if a school does not meet the adequate yearly progress standard for five years, it is designated as in need of restructuring. A school in need of restructuring is subject to state takeover, mass staff firings, reopening as a charter school, and even school closure.

Because this is the fifth year after NCLB's passage, we are beginning to see schools receive the restructuring designation. As of 2006, some reports estimate that there are already 2,000 schools designated as failing. In some cities, such as Chicago, one-third of all public schools are being designated as in need of restructuring. Some experts predict that in the next five years the number of restructuring schools may swell to as many as 10,000. In short, NCLB has the potential to put our public schools into a state of chaos and crisis.


These statistics raise a number of serious questions. First, what will states do to respond to the increasing numbers of schools being labeled as in need of restructuring? Some educational policy experts worry that one response will be to actually lower academic grade-level standards, making it easier for students to meet the standards. Prior to NCLB's enactment, almost every state already had its own set of academic standards for each grade level, but the harsh accountability requirements of NCLB may cause states to turn away from the highest standards in order to avoid the consequences of failing schools.

Next, where will all the students go whose schools are restructured? The act allows students to transfer to other public schools. For some high achieving public schools that may mean the absorption of students from failing schools. But will those schools have the staff and the capability to manage the influx? Or will the migrations start those schools down the path to possible restructuring status as well?

Also, when a student is attending a failing neighborhood school, the student's only choice for transfer may be outside of their neighborhood. This possible move away from local neighborhood schools would defeat current attempts by parents and school officials to increase parental involvement in their children's education by promoting neighborhood schools.

Another alternative for students in restructuring schools is to transfer to charter schools. If they do that, they leave the public school system for the privately run schools. However, the alternative of charter schools might actually be worse for those students, as recent studies by the federal government show that fourth grade students in charter schools are not performing as well as public school students. Essentially, charter schools may provide an ineffective alternative for students fleeing from a failing school.

Beyond the possible dire consequences for schools and students in the aftermath of NCLB's passage, we are also seeing the questionable effects of the statute's methods of measuring achievement on school curriculums. NCLB depends on yearly testing to evaluate students, and because of the high stakes of that testing, more schools are emphasizing reading, math and science -- to the detriment of other subjects, such as history, art, music and physical education. American public school students already lag behind students in other countries concerning knowledge of geography and world history. There are also increasing cries by public health experts that less physical education may be exacerbating the problem of childhood obesity.


The statute has a laudable goal of improving academic achievement for all students regardless of socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. And there has been some average national increase in math and reading scores since the act took effect. Despite NCLB's good intent, the statute's actual effects on public schools seem to be detrimental, with the potential to become devastating.

The NCLB comes up for renewal in 2007, so it is not too early for Congress to evaluate the law's results so far. Congress should reconsider the "testocracy" that the statute has set up to measure student achievement, which is directly impacting what is taught in classes. Testing is only one method of measuring a student's progress. Schools that can include other factors, such as a student's grades and individual teacher evaluations, into an assessment of a child's proficiency may feel less of a need to value NCLB test results unduly, above other important measures of progress.

Also, Congress should re-evaluate the NCLB accountability requirements that focus on transferring students and reassigning personnel. Perhaps the the law should be modified to encourage states to reform failing schools from within. More aggressive steps can and should be taken to preserve the already existing school. An increase in funding for more teacher training and after-school educational support services is one such option.

The federal government should also allocate funds for studying the actual effect of increased testing in schools, in order to make a better-informed decision about whether the statute's emphasis on standards and testing actually improves achievement levels. Finally, funding should be preserved for states to implement more early pre-kindergarten education programs, such as Head Start. Unfortunately, Congress's proposed budget for this year actually includes cuts to federal support for public education.

With NCLB the federal government took on the daunting task of increasing student achievement. While the law has wrought change, the ongoing question is whether this or other federal government initiatives are effective in assisting schools in the day-to-day struggle to improve a child's reading level, math skills and scientific knowledge. Thus far, NCLB has provided more questions than answers, and it is up to Congress to take the next step.

Danielle Holley-Walker is an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. She teaches in the fields of civil procedure, administrative law, and race and the law.

— Danielle R. Holley-Walker


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