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NCLB Outrages

School Beat: Son of NCLB

This article, from a San Francisco parent's perspective, makes some great, straightforward points about the outrageousness of high-stakes testing schemes like NCLB. And the author reveals her supreme good sense by supporting The Petition.

by Lisa Schiff

If you need a does of black humor, just pick any random piece of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This law is replete with outrageous
expectations disingenuously posing as the simplest of matters. My favorite joke of the moment comes from the section that details the requirements for involving parents for schools receiving “Title I” funds designed to assist low-income kids.

This portion contains a whole host of must do items for schools to implement
that sound great on paper but are completely divorced from reality. The best
one is where schools are informed that in order to encourage more parent
participation they should feel free to provide parents transportation to and
from school events.

Yeah, this would be great and makes me ask: “Mr. President, to which address
should I send the receipt for our school minibus, the insurance, the salary for
the driver and the weekly gas bill? And along the way, would you mind padding
the reimbursement with a little extra to cover a full-time librarian, a
full-time nurse, teachers’ aides for each classroom, a full-time PE teacher, new
sports equipment, instruments and art supplies, sufficient text books, and a
refurbished building? Oh, and don’t forget to make sure our students have
adequate housing and health care and that their parents are offered meaningful,
well-paying jobs. Thanks!”

The heavy sarcasm indicates how many parents, students and educators feel about
NCLB and the possibilities for its rehabilitation in the upcoming
reauthorization. Democrats are now in charge, so there may be some hope, but we
can’t forget that Democrats were willing and equal partners in this fiasco, and
that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that they know anything
more about public education today than they did five years ago. Seriously, how
many of these folks enrolled their children in public school over the recent

In fact, it seems that the reauthorization timeline may be bringing out all the
sharks. Just this week the Commission on No Child Left Behind, co-chaired by
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Governor Roy E. Barnes
of Georgia, supported by the Aspen Report, released a length report for the
reauthorization of NCLB. The report enumerates 75 recommendations, the bulk of which, based on a relatively cursory reading at this point, are more punitive and myopic than the original legislation.

For instance, one of the recommendations concerns enrollment. In order to more
completely pretend that shifting students around from school to school is an
answer to anything, this report recommends multiple enrollment periods
throughout the year, in order to ensure that students in schools considered
failing have other options to choose from. So the total set of schools does not
change, but potentially several times within the school year, kids will be

The disruption to the kids, the schools, the implementation and administrative
costs and the complete lack of focus on the underlying problems bring us once
more into the realm of the unbelievable. Most of the 75 recommendations are
similarly outrageous.

An exception is the acknowledgement of the Reading First scandal, in which
Department of Education staffers was actually forcing the use of certain
commercial materials for their own private gain. The Commission recommends that
the DOE not be allowed to participate in such choices. So, now we have to have
specific recommendations to prohibit tried and true forms of corruption.

Most of the recommendations are focused on more ways to measure and dissect the
performance of students, teachers, principals, and administrators. Many of the
recommendations include requirements for schools to set aside even more funds
from already low budgets to meet expanded programs. Noticeably, and not
surprisingly, there is no mention of evaluating the actual cost of implementing
these programs and authorizing funds to match, nor is there any mention of
complementary efforts to address the confounding social problems of lack of
housing, health care, jobs and more.

In other words, this Commission hopes to make NCLB even more punitive, filled
with more impossible goals, and even more divorced from reality. The message is
clear. Public education is still in jeopardy under the current administration.

Supporters of the bill, such as the Commission that issued this latest report,
insist that while there are flaws that need to be addressed, NCLB has
accomplished a lot and has goals we can all agree on. Some even go so far as to
say it would be fine if only it had sufficient funding. Especially important,
we are told, is that fact that we now know just how badly minority, low-income,
and English Language Learning students are doing.

Let’s take this myth, the strongest part of NCLB perhaps, apart. Yes, we can
use percentages to describe how African-American, Latino and low-income students
are in general not being served well by our educational system, but we’ve known
this for a long time, even without floating decimal points in the percentages.
Because we live in a society still riddled with institutionalized racism and
designed to promote individual wealth accumulation, for any public service, for
any social institution, people of color and those on the lower-end of the income
scale will get less more of the time, if not all of the time.

NCLB lets us describe this with a lot of methodologically unsound numbers. So
what? These faulty statistics do nothing to create a shift in prioritizing
education, in developing new teaching strategies, or more radically in taking
seriously calls to eliminate poverty.

What these numbers do instead is make us feel as though something has been
accomplished. That by assigning a percentile to groups of students in schools,
in districts, across states and across the numbers, and then by publishing those
numbers in newspapers all over the country as though they were so many scarlet
letters that we have taken a step to make sure that all children are moving
forward. So at the end of the school year, what we’re left with are more
numbers, and more thrashing because of those numbers, as opposed to anything
approximating new solutions to identified problems.

That’s the current state of things. The question on the table now is how much
room reauthorization provides for major changes to federal education
legislation. The first point to address is probably the “full funding” issue,
frequently mentioned by NCLB supporters such as Kennedy. Our first question
should be “As defined by whom?” Money is great, but does anyone really trust
these folks to come through on it? Why not prove that Washington can make good
on its promises by provided the federal dollars states are already owed in order
to provide truly adequate special education services (IDEA funding). These
dollars could flow without requiring new legislation and would make a dramatic
improvement for all students, whether or not they are covered by IDEA, as right
now, general funds are being used to make up the bare minimum of special
education requirements.

Another idea that’s being discussed, and is mentioned in the Commission’s
report, is to change the way progress is measured. As many critics have pointed
out, schools are punished if students don’t meet target test goals, even if the
students in question have significantly improved from where they started. The
proposed change is to track this progress, but to still hold schools accountable
for students achieving the end target. This would be a welcome change, but it’s
hard to know if it’s sufficient. Will states once again simply water-down their
standards so that they are easier to meet or slyly push kids out of schools who
are dramatically underperforming as we now know they did in Texas to achieve
their false “miracle?”

A counter to this above point has been floated around—creating federal minimum
standards that all states must meet, in order to circumvent the widely varying
levels of rigor we now have patchworked across the country. This seems like a
promising idea, but there is little in our experience that would lead us to
trust our lawmakers to devise useful standards, any more than they were able to
craft good education legislation.

In fact, we should perhaps worry more, as the lack of well-trained specialists
serving in government is at an all-time low. In other words, is there anyone
around D.C. who knows enough to write such standards? Obviously not, because
what is not on the table, at least yet, is the ridiculous 2014 deadline at which
time all children in the US are supposed to be working at grade level or the
narrow-minded focus on standardized testing and standardized learning.

Two possible responses are now available to those of us who want changes. The
first is a reform approach, championed by the Forum on Education
Accounatibility, a wide ranging coalition of organizations representing
children, educators, civil rights and more have bee pushing for meaningful
change to the legislation. The proposed changes can be read at
http://www.edaccountability.org/about/statement.php and provide an excellent
starting point for law-makers, including the head of the Department of
Education, Margaret Spelling, to start in examining how to make good

The second option is what many of us really want in our heart of hearts—a full
repeal. The Education Roundtable, a seemingly much smaller group has a solid,
hard-hitting critique available regarding why this legislation must be wiped
out, not just modified. A petition trying to advance this goal is available for
all to sign:

Each of these groups has excellent points for us to use in our efforts to
influence decision makers as we are able. Whether reform or repeal, serious
changes are in order and not in the direction the administration is going. The
exact timeline for reauthorization is not known yet, and may in fact not come up
until after the next elections, given its third-rail nature. But even so,
undoing this law and refashioning it into something else will take time, so we
had better get those letters going now.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School
in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of
directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

— Lisa Schiff
Beyond Chron: The Voice of the Rest


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