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NCLB Outrages

On No Child Left Behind Is the feds' lesson plan working? Two Answers

Ohanian Comment: Yawn. Why is it that a politico is always the one given the platform to rebut NCLB? So we get the same old argument that what NCLB needs is more money, never the revelation of the corporate underpinnings of this bill. Sam Farr can call NCLB visionary; I say it's spinach and watch out. This is a typical Potemkin show, set up to snooker us all.

YES: Expectations + rigor = promising results

by Margaret Spellings

PICK UP any newspaper -- including this one -- and you'll see them. Predictions that the world is getting "flatter." Warnings that other nations are catching up to America in the global economic race. Calls by policymakers and pundits that we must raise our standards to compete.

True enough. But instead of worrying, we have acted.

Five years ago, America raised its standards with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB]. Its mission -- to bring all students up to grade level or better in reading and math by 2014 -- is planting the seeds that will grow into a new generation ready to compete with the world. Its formula is simple: high standards plus accountability plus resources equals results.

We are witnessing those results in California. Fourth-grade reading proficiency has shot up eight percentage points in two years (2003-05), according to the California Report Card. Proficiency in math rose five percentage points. In San Francisco, nearly half the students scored at grade level in reading and math, compared to 40 percent in 2003.

No Child Left Behind calls on all schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) based on state -- not federal -- academic standards. Over time the bar is raised a little higher toward the ultimate 2014 goal. The law also calls for schools to raise the achievement levels of African American, Hispanic, Limited English Proficient, economically disadvantaged and disabled students -- in other words, children once left behind. This gives parents, teachers and policymakers accurate and up-to-date data so they can take action before it's too late. The law also gives parents in chronically underperforming schools new options, such as free tutoring and transfer to another public or public charter school that better meets their child's needs.

Curiously, some of the same editorial writers and talking heads who wring their hands about economic competitiveness are the first to complain that NCLB is too onerous, that it sets the bar too high.

I would ask them, whose son or daughter do you not want learning at grade level? Do you want your child left behind?

Many Golden State schools are proving the pessimists wrong. One of them is Riverside Elementary School in San Pablo. Seventy-nine percent of its students are poor, and 39 percent primarily speak Spanish, according to the Chronicle. For years the school had underperformed. In 2005, a new principal, Greg Santiago, was hired. Using data collected under NCLB, he worked with teachers to diagnose students' individual needs. "That was extremely helpful," he said. "We look at the data, and then we talk about it." Today, Riverside has met its AYP goals two years running.

Another success story occurred in Orange County, where all but two schools in the Garden Grove Unified School District recently met or exceeded their goals, despite a 75 percent Limited English Proficient student body. "We use No Child Left Behind to set the targets we want to hit," said Superintendent Laura Schwalm. "We align all our actions and resources to hit those targets. And we believe the kids can do it."

Our kids are growing up in a world where what you know matters more than where you live. It is a time when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs will require post-secondary education or training. To prepare them to compete, we must bring them up to grade level first.

This is especially important in mathematics, the new currency of the global economy. We have made great progress among our youngest students. But older students still lag behind. In one recent test, our 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 29 developed nations in mathematics literacy and problem-solving.

Last April, President Bush created the National Mathematics Advisory Panel to advise states on the best, scientifically based instructional methods to prepare students to pass algebra and other advanced coursework. And the president's new Academic Competitiveness Grants and National SMART Grant program, signed into law this year, are awarding thousands of dollars to low-income students who complete a rigorous high school curriculum and who choose college majors vital to our nation's future, including math, science and critical-need foreign languages.

Going forward, we are working closely with states to help them comply with NCLB. States that follow the "bright lines" of the law -- assessing students regularly, disaggregating data, hiring highly qualified teachers and informing parents about their options -- may qualify for flexibility in measuring and reporting their results. We prefer collaboration to confrontation. Many states, including California, clearly have room to improve.

But the bottom line remains the same. No Child Left Behind has added a fourth "R" to reading, writing and 'rithmetic -- results. We are beginning to see those results. And soon the world will, too.

Margaret Spellings is secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

NO: Funding falls short -- some kids left behind

by Sam Farr

Education is one of those issues where everyone thinks they have "the answer" to the problem because they once were a student.

Well, for many years I was a student, but that hardly qualifies me to be a teacher.

Unfortunately, in the arena of legislation, I think we might have too many former students making education policy and not enough educators providing advice and direction.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was an ambitious -- almost visionary -- effort by the brand-new Bush administration in 2001 to redesign and reform federal education policy. Its intent was to join the tenets of qualified, quality teachers with system accountability and achievement. Behind this new paradigm was to be robust federal funding to support and drive change and excellence. Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed that serious change was needed in our approach to education and worked with the White House to "fix what was broken."

The reality, however, has turned out to be a little different. Though the concept behind NCLB is still worthwhile, the implementation of the law has been rocky, uneven and sorely underfunded. Hundreds of schools across the country have fallen short by NCLB standards, thousands of teachers toil under certifications that must be upgraded or renewed and students spend their days studying to answer test questions instead of learning the basic and advanced skills of critical thinking and problem solving.

In part, I believe, the problem is attributable to NCLB programs being short-funded. Federal programs that normally underwrote elementary and secondary education were consolidated in many instances, expected to perform more and greater tasks, but under reduced funding levels. Certainly, consolidation can bring efficiencies, but when they are linked with wholesale changes in expected outcomes, that takes greater investment. For example, this year the Bush administration provided $9.4 billion less than promised in the No Child Left Behind Act -- demanding schools improve without giving them the funds they need to do so. This shortfall leaves 2.4 million children without needed help in reading and math and cuts teacher quality programs by $234 million. There is only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip, and schools are on the chasm of never recovering from cutbacks they've been forced to absorb.

So, clearly the money issue is part of the dynamic behind the failures of No Child Left Behind.

But another factor is the act's testing regimen. Like any other student, I hated tests when I was young; I wished they had never been invented! Of course, as an adult I recognize their usefulness in assessing a student's topical knowledge. Even so, if tests were the ultimate assessment tool teachers would embrace them the way most kids glom on to chocolate. But that's not what we see happening. Teachers offer the bitterest criticism of NCLB when it comes to the subject of testing. Why? Because the tests are supposed to score achievement based on rote subject matter instead of testing student progress in critical thinking skills and communication and literacy.

I liken the achievement tests under NCLB to a patient who goes to the doctor with a health complaint. The doctor responds that most persons your age are already dead so you should be happy. According to the doctor, the patient has "achieved" a certain status -- i.e., not being dead -- but that doesn't solve his problems. Under NCLB, the tests may, or may not, show that schools have achieved a certain status. But that doesn't mean the students have assimilated any new knowledge, despite what they have "learned." Just as the doctor in my example ought to employ diagnostic tools to determine the source of the patient's health complaint, NCLB tests ought to be designed to determine students' best means of absorbing information and knowledge and thinking skills, not just whether they can add 1 plus 1. Assessing achievement is more than just a multiple-choice test.

NCLB has other drawbacks as well. The issue of teacher certification and whether a "highly qualified" teacher equals a "'quality" teacher is one such area of dispute. Subject specific knowledge is important, but successful teachers need to know how to address different students' learning needs and skill levels. However, NCLB only scores subject expertise. I am relatively expert on the issue of removal of unexploded ordnance from military bases, but I doubt I am highly qualified to teach a roomful of UXO removal contractors. NCLB has to be more flexible to recognize -- and nurture -- the link between the quality of teachers and teaching and the achievement of students.

In the end, when Congress examines education law in 2007 and begins the task of reauthorizing elementary and secondary education programs, the NCLB experience will provide a wealth of do's and don'ts for us. I remain hopeful that the deficiencies of NCLB can be corrected and its visionary mission of teaching and accountability can be realized.

Sam Farr is a Democrat who represents the 17th District (central coast) in the U.S. House of Representatives.

— Margaret Spellings and Sam Farr
San Francisco Chronicle


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