Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind needs lift, not a recess

AGHHHHHHHHH. There is entirely too much inaccuracy, misinformation, and distortion here to begin to cope with. Interesting that the opposing view is solicited from the Cato Institute. It looks like educator opinions don't count.

by Maureen Downey, for the editorial board

The federal No Child Left Behind Act forced a new and ambitious standard on public education that prevented schools from masking or ignoring low achievement. Districts could no longer hide behind average scores or trot out their top performers. Every student--whether poor, minority or special education--was expected to learn.

As Congress debates the reauthorization of the landmark legislation, a debate is roiling over how much students should be expected to learn, at what rate and how best to measure that learning. Those are valid questions, but they shouldn't be allowed to dilute the law or diminish its critical accountability provisions.

A sampling of testimony before Congress

No Child Left Behind remains the best hope for at-risk students to wrest a good education out of a system that has historically been indifferent to their needs. For too long, schools defended low performance by citing the poverty of their students. These kids couldn't learn, said schools, because of their underprivileged backgrounds and uneducated parents.

As President Bush's signature legislation, the sweeping 2001 law holds schools accountable for the performance of their students in reading and math, setting 100 percent proficiency in those subjects by 2014 as its overarching goal.

The law mandates that schools be graded. The pass/fail label pressures schools to focus on all students, including minorities, those from poor families, those who don't speak English well and those with disabilities. Failing schools incur sanctions that escalate over time, culminating in closing altogether and reopening under new management.

No Child Left Behind spotlights the schools and teachers who are achieving with those so-called unteachable children. It prods less ambitious schools to examine their practices and their expectations and to rethink their assumption that children arrive at school with their academic fates already sealed.

"People don't realize what a profound change No Child Left Behind made for teachers," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington-based reform group.

"Everything in their training said it was OK to teach to the middle and have some kids fail. Now, the law is saying that we can't leave kids behind anymore."

In six hours of congressional testimony last week on the law, educators suggested a host of changes to No Child Left Behind, some designed to weaken and complicate accountability.

Among the worst ideas: Basing accountability decisions on test scores in subjects other than math and reading. Proponents presented studies that show schools have increased the time in math and reading to the detriment of other disciplines, such as science and social studies.

Math and reading skills remain the critical foundation to doing well in every other subject, including science and social studies.

And despite the complaints that schools have narrowed curriculum in the early grades, fourth grade science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress--a standardized test often called the Nation's Report Card--rose between 2000 and 2005, suggesting that a strong foundation in math and reading enhances other subjects as well. Georgia fourth-graders' average science score jumped 6 points, while the nation's score rose 4 points.

Another disastrous suggestion was allowing local school districts to devise their own accountability measures rather than submit students to the state assessments. That would mean that Cobb could use one set of exams to determine whether its students met proficiency and Gwinnett another.

If every Georgia district could invent its own standards, there would be no fair way to compare achievement. And the past tells us that the end result would be a higher bar in affluent communities and a lower one in poorer areas.

The rigor of curriculum would be dictated by ZIP code rather than a single state standard that all schools would be expected to meet. (That standard in Georgia remains far too low, but the state is inching it up bit by bit.)

Congress should resist all attempts to weaken accountability, whether it is allowing districts to compensate for low math and reading scores by substituting tests in other subjects or by counting performance in Advanced Placement courses. That simply returns schools to the day where they could highlight their highest performers to conceal their weakest.

U.S. schools should be able to get kids performing on grade level in math and reading; that so many educators complain that the goal unattainable is an indictment of the system's low expectations.

In a recent speech, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings noted that fewer than half of African-American and Hispanic fourth-graders have basic reading skills, adding up to more than 700,000 children who can barely read.

"If that's not cause for anxiety, concern and action, I don't know what is," she said. "But as Bill Gates has told me, if the speedometer says you're going too slow, you don't really need a new speedometer. You need to speed up. So I find it amazing that we're actually debating whether or not it's reasonable to give every child the bare-minimum skills they need to participate in our democracy and our economy."

Congress should also stay tough on performance pay for teachers. Teacher groups complain that it's unfair, but that battle is over. Student performance ââ¬â along with principal and peer evaluations ââ¬â must be a factor in teacher assessments. While the best interests of teachers have dominated the American education agenda for a long time, No Child Left Behind has flung open the classroom doors and turned attention to student interests. Performance pay represents an instance where the best interest of teachers collides with the best interest of students. Students ought to win.

The law's goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014 should be rethought because too many states have set proficiency at embarrassingly low levels to meet the deadline. If states raise their standards to a college readiness scale ââ¬â far higher than most states now have ââ¬â the law should grant them an extension in the time line.

The law also needs to ratchet up the guidance and resources given to failing schools. Now, it essentially falls on the principals of struggling schools to find the fix. The responsibility has to shift to the district and state level where the turn-around expertise is supposed to be.

In opposing attempts to weaken the law, Secretary Spellings says the challenge for the nation's schools is greater now ââ¬â to ensure not only that no child is left behind, but that every child is moving forward. That goal should not be compromised for the sake of an entrenched education bureaucracy.

NCLB fails in effort to get students ahead

By Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute

In early 2002, Republicans passed the No Child Left Behind act, the most intrusive federal education law in American history. Five years later, with NCLB up for reauthorization, they can't jump ship fast enough.

The list of Republicans already overboard is long. Several of them are Bush administration alumni, including former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok. Numerous House and Senate Republicans instead have endorsed the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (A-PLUS), which would let states run their own schools without losing federal funds. In late July, Rep. Scott Garrett (R- N.J.) introduced the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN), to let states opt out of NCLB and give federal education money directly back to state citizens in the form of tax credits.

NCLB's biggest problem is that it's designed to help Washington politicians appear all things to all people. To look tough on bad schools, it requires states to establish standards and tests in reading, math and science, and it requires all schools to make annual progress toward 100 percent reading and math proficiency by 2014. To preserve local control, however, it allows states to set their own standards, "adequate yearly progress" goals and definitions of proficiency. As a result, states have set low standards, enabling politicians to declare victory without taking any truly substantive action.

NCLB's perverse effects are illustrated by Michigan, which dropped its relatively demanding standards when it had more than 1,500 schools on NCLB's first "needs improvement" list. The July 2002 transformation of then-state Superintendent Tom Watkins captures NCLB's power. Early that month, when discussing the effects of state budget cuts on Michigan schools, Watkins declared that cuts or no cuts, "We don't lower standards in this state!"

A few weeks later, thanks to NCLB, Michigan cut drastically the percentage of students who needed to hit proficiency on state tests for a school to make adequate yearly progress. "Michigan stretches to do what's right with our children," Watkins said, "but we're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot."

Today, evasion syndrome is epidemic. According to a report last month from the Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, while states are declaring success on their tests, almost none have standards even close to those of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress--the so-called "Nation's Report Card." Almost all states have set their standards below NAEP's "proficiency" level.

In light of its perverse effects, as well as complaints that it is underfunded, overprescriptive and so on, NCLB is not wildly popular. When first asked what their attitudes were about NCLB, a recent Educational Testing Service survey found that only 41 percent of Americans were favorable, while 43 percent were not. An Ohio University poll in May found the more people actually knew about NCLB the less they liked it.

Thankfully, as bills such as A-PLUS and LEARN make clear, many Republicans plan to fight the president on reauthorization. Indeed, A-PLUS alone has 60 Republican co-sponsors in the House --including Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)--up from the 33 Republicans who voted against the original NCLB. Nevertheless, the administration and many congressional Republicans are sticking with NCLB. President Bush continually declares reauthorization "one of his top priorities."

On his Web site, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who chaired the Committee on Education and the Workforce during NCLB's first time around, mystifyingly declares the law "a huge step in the right direction for Americans who believe Big Government is not the solution to the problems with our education system."

In the end, neither Republicans nor Democrats should fight for NCLB. It hasn't helped either party, and it has hurt children all over the country. Indeed, if NCLB has taught one thing, it is this: When Washington gets involved in education, no one wins.

This column is solicited to provide another viewpoint to an AJC editorial.

— Maureen Downey, for the editorial board & Neal McCluskey for Cato Institute
Atlanta Journal Constitution


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.