Battles Ahead Over No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind, the federal education-overhaul act passed in 2001, is causing upheaval in schools.
A bold intrusion into local education policy, it has become the latest flash point for the Education Wars - from what makes a quality teacher to the best way to judge schools and student progress.
Passed with bipartisan support, the act united proponents of school choice and high-stakes testing with public school advocates desperate to prod schools into better serving the neediest students.
But as the law takes hold, battle lines are being drawn.
About 8,000 schools have been cited under the act as needing improvement, including hundreds in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, fueling the idea that its intent is to undermine public education.
Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean has vowed to eliminate the requirement that all students be tested annually and schools graded accordingly.
Some, however, see the act as forcing districts to better educate historically neglected students, especially low-income and minority groups.
More turmoil is expected after Pennsylvania releases test scores tomorrow of such "subgroups" within schools as well as the percentage of highly qualified teachers in each building.
The law "is setting up public schools to fail. It is setting up children to fail," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
The union supports legislation to modify the act's ambitious goal of having virtually all students - including 99 percent of special-education students - be proficient in reading and writing by 2014.
Critics say No Child Left Behind is a sham because the Bush administration has appropriated $6 billion less than promised.
"Accountability is a good thing," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. "But we'll never really know how effective the program can be until the program is fully funded."
Proponents of the act, such as Craig Jerald of Education Trust, which promotes the education of disadvantaged groups, fought hard for the reporting of scores by subgroups of students - including racial minorities and special-education students.
He sees the testing and accountability measures as essential tools to force change, if well implemented.
Schools, he said, "can take shortcuts that devalue teaching and harm students, like teaching to the test and drill-and-kill, or even cheating. Or they can build thoughtful instructional systems that work."
A national survey by the nonprofit research group Public Agenda, due out tomorrow, shows that superintendents believe the law is good in theory but unrealistic in practice.
Cherry Hill Superintendent Morton Sherman expressed that ambivalence in a recent letter in The Inquirer. Sherman was upset that Cherry Hill's high schools had landed on a warning list for missing proficiency cutoffs for special-education, African American and low-income students.
"How can a U.S. Department of Education 'blue ribbon school' and a school that earned the state Department of Education's 'best practices award' be told they're falling short when their SAT scores exceed state and national averages, their dropout rates approach zero, and 90 to 95 percent of their graduates go to college?" Sherman wrote.
But then he added: "The good thing about No Child Left Behind is... it has forced districts to make a strong commitment to improving education."
Mount Laurel Superintendent Antoinette Rath sees the law as a catalyst. "If all students are going to meet the standards, we have to acknowledge all kids learn differently," she said.
The well-off district landed on New Jersey's warning list after its African American students failed to meet goals.
"We are switching the environment from the instructor being prescriptive - that is, teachers focusing on where they should be in the school year - to being diagnostic, where they can develop individual plans for youngsters," she said.
But Nancy Baker, a reading teacher at Bristol Borough Junior-Senior High School, is discouraged by the emphasis on test-taking. Her students, who used to write reports on 11 books a year, now read only eight books because they have to prepare for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test, which relies on short-paragraph writing and multiple-choice questions.
Her superintendent, Broadus Davis, says the test preparation wastes valuable time for students, even though his eighth graders boosted their test scores significantly last year.
"It doesn't mean they are better readers or better mathematicians," he said. "They are better at taking the test."
Each school's scores are made public. Even slight dips can cause "a public relations nightmare," said Pennsauken Superintendent Walter Quint.
Under the law, states choose their tests and proficiency bars, which vary from state to state.
New Jersey's Education Department recently said that 75 percent of the state's 361 high schools were warned that they might not meet federal standards next year, as were 265 elementary and middle schools. Nearly half of Pennsylvania schools were warned or put on a "needs improvement" list.
Quint expected some problems in Pennsauken but was floored by others. Some of the best schools were cited as needing improvement because not enough students took the test.
While he acknowledges that there are groups in the district that can be better served, "socioeconomic factors outweigh anything the schools can do."
The requirement that special-education and non-English-speaking students must meet standards has caused the most controversy.
Under the law, all but 1 percent of special-education students must pass grade-level tests. The theory is that many are wrongly placed.
But teachers and administrators often do not see it that way.
"Students are being subjected to complete a test they have no chance at passing," said Deb McCarter, a seventh-grade special-education teacher at Abington Junior High and president of the Abington Education Association. "It creates incredible stress in the kids."
For English-language learners, the law has a catch-22: Students who learn English well enough to ace the test are no longer classified in that subgroup, and the school gets no credit for their success.
"You may actually be serving your [ESL] students quite well, but it may look like you're not," said Bristol Township Superintendent Regina Cesario.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all teachers must be fully qualified by 2006, but some schools are refusing to send out letters informing parents that their child's teacher is not "highly qualified."
Utah's education secretary said such letters would make teachers feel bad.
Successful teachers with elementary certifications could be considered "not highly qualified" if they taught a subject to seventh and eighth graders that was not their college major.
The Philadelphia School District, with hundreds of such teachers, told parents they could ask to see a teacher's qualifications.
In New Jersey, letters are to go out next month.
Pennsauken's Quint says it is troubling to tell a parent that a teacher is not qualified when the teacher "has been teaching for 25 years and people fight to get into her classroom."
Under the law, schools that fail to meet goals two years in a row must set aside money for private tutoring or student transfers to better schools. Students in "persistently violent" schools also may transfer.
Suburban districts have rebuffed requests to take students from Philadelphia, Chester and Norristown, leaving city students with few better options.
Meanwhile, the tutoring provision has opened up a huge market for private tutors to get federal money that would otherwise go to schools. It is often Exhibit A among those who regard the law as a way for public education to be privatized.
Vallas is concerned that Philadelphia must turn over $1,800 per child to tutors who have not proven their benefit. But many parents see an opportunity to get extra help for their children from a source other than their underperforming school.
With superintendents debating whether No Child Left Behind will live up to its name, Vicki Phillips, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, is hopeful that the act will be a positive force.
"There's a balance to be had here between what districts think at the end is unrealistic and the fact that we have a lot of distance to go," she said. "We have to put our shoulder to it."
Dale Mezzacappa, Toni Callas and Kellie Patrick
Battles ahead over No Child Left Behind
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES