Des Moines Register Gets It: NCLB Guarantees Failure
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2002, means pretty much what it says. Public schools are being held responsible for closing the achievement gap.
Unfortunately, it comes with a bureaucratic heavy hand, a confusing tangle of rules, and it sets schools up for failure by establishing unattainable goals.
One aspect of the law is especially difficult: Some schools receive a constant influx of new students who are learning to speak English. How will those schools avoid being labeled in need of improvement, or failing? Children learning English will be tested in English after three years, and some won't be ready.
Here's the plan, under No Child Left Behind:
A school in need of improvement is one that fails to show adequate yearly progress in reading or math for two years in a row for all students and certain subgroups. The groups include minority students, disabled students and students learning English. At least 95 percent of each group must be tested. Exceptions are made for schools in which the size of a group is statistically insignificant.
U.S. Department of Education officials explained what's expected regarding students learning to speak English, which should ease local educators' fears somewhat.
Children in English Language Learner classes may take the reading and math tests in their native language for up to three years if necessary, said Kathleen Leos, senior policy adviser to the department's Office of English Language Acquisition. In fact, if a child starts ELL class part way through the year, his or her test score is not included in the building total. And the needs-improvement label may not be applied to the building if ELL students make enough progress, even if they don't hit their target.
Finally, if a school enrolls a significant number of children who are illiterate in their native language, those children are tested in the first year in ELL to see how they are doing but their score does not count for reporting purposes that year, said Maria Hernandez Ferrier, director of the Office of English Language Acquisition.
Those provisions will help schools, but they still face a huge challenge: Even after several years in English Language Learner classes, and even with excellent teachers, some youngsters aren't proficient. Yet buildings may face sanctions if their test scores don't rise.
13,000 in Iowa
The law is intended to address the reality that some of the more than 5 million children learning to speak English in America's public schools are underserved. Part of the problem, though, has been that schools are underfunded. In Iowa, more than 13,000 students are learning to speak English, a number likely to grow.
Tom Williams in Muscatine is one of many superintendents worried about meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Muscatine in southeast Iowa enrolls 5,500 students. Nearly 400 are learning to speak English. They are mostly native Spanish speakers whose families moved to the area to work in nearby meatpacking plants. The district already has two schools - each with a large share of youngsters who are learning English - designated as needing improvement under No Child Left Behind.
"We are working really hard," said Williams. "We are implementing the programs that have been identified by the (Iowa) Department of Education. They have provided some support and curriculum and strategies and training to our staffs. We are trying to improve the way we teach reading and the way we use data."
"So we have been really working this year to get those things in place, and we will wait and see how the test scores come out and hopefully we will make some progress," Williams said. "Can we sustain that over time and get 100 percent of our kids reading in 10 years? It's a heck of a goal. I hope we can. We're going to give it all we've got."
That may not be enough.
The intent of No Child Left Behind is admirable. The underlying assumption - that all school districts need an edict from Washington to serve students well - is wrong.
Register Editorial Board
Rules that Spell Failure Tangled federal edicts guarantee schools can't measure up
Des Moines Register
Feb. 24, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES