Critics: School Law Hurts Kids
Thousands do not receive promised academic aid.: State fails to check compliance with federal rules.: Strong schools flunk for nonacademic reasons.
The No Child Left Behind Act, called the most far-reaching education reform in 35 years, promises to boost student achievement and parent involvement. Instead, the federal law is riddled with problems for Metro Detroit students, parents and educators, a Detroit News analysis found.
Two years after Congress passed the law, thousands of local students are not getting services they were promised, the state has not monitored whether schools are complying with the law and locally and nationally, schools are still landing on the failing list by the hundreds.
It’s not just schools with low achievement scores struggling to keep up.
High-performing schools in some of the area’s wealthiest communities have been labeled as “failing” because not enough students took the tests used to measure whether schools are meeting the standards.
Caught in the middle are parents, educators and students who have to make sense of the law.
“It just doesn’t seem to be a fair assessment,” said Mike Bertan, who lives in South Lyon where the high school failed to meet federal standards because not enough students took the achievement tests. His seventh-grade daughter, Ashley, will attend the school in 2005. “There needs to be a lot of work done before people give it the credibility the government would like.”
Supporters say it will take time for the new law to shake out. Schools have until 2014 to meet the 100 percent proficiency goal and adjust to the requirements, they said.
“You can look at the glass half-empty or half-full,” said Sandy Kress, the Texas attorney who helped construct the law as former senior education adviser to President Bush. “There is more to be done ... but there seems to be an urgency (in Michigan) about getting the work done.”
Some educators and experts believe the law will fall short of its goals in the next decade.
Its rigidness will doom it to fail, said David Plank, co-director of The Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.
“It is going to collapse of its own weight,” said Plank, who has studied the law’s impact on Michigan schools. “The law as it is written is simply unworkable.”
No Child Left Behind is supposed to hold schools accountable, sanctioning them if they fail to meet achievement standards for two or more consecutive years.
It’s done that.
In Michigan’s first release of schools that failed to meet the standards, more than 200 schools were penalized, about 125 in Metro Detroit. More than 400 statewide could face a range of consequences as a result of the latest release in January.
The problem is there has been no oversight to make sure schools adhere to the sanctions, which include providing students with transportation to successful schools and tutoring. The state Department of Education only last week sent out letters asking schools to report whether they’ve implemented the consequences.
At least five of the nine school districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties that didn’t meet the standards last year and faced penalties still haven’t provided tutoring or the transfer option.
Within those districts, at least 82,000 students were eligible to be transferred and 2,300 qualified for tutoring based on their parents’ economic status.
The state hasn’t kept records of which schools are providing services to students, making it unclear how many more districts aren’t complying with the law.
“Many of these districts are in fact breaking the law, and no one is asking them to step up and be responsible for it,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
In Detroit, more than 900 parents who requested the transfer option have not been able to get their kids into better performing schools. And while the district does offer tutoring, only about 1,500 of the 51,000 eligible students are taking advantage of the service. Parents and experts say the district hasn’t done enough to promote the option.
Students who got tutoring this year stopped receiving the help for two months because the district said it needed the time to monitor bills coming in from the services.
Implementation takes time, said James Humphries, Detroit’s interim executive director of the Department of Federal, State & Local Grant Development & Program Compliance. He hopes to have a system to transfer students in place by next fall.
“You just can’t put kids in any building,” Humphries said.
That’s too late for Natasha Anderson. She pulled her two boys out of Detroit’s Marquette Elementary and Burbank Middle schools in August when administrators wouldn’t transfer them to successful schools in the district.
“They weren’t learning anything,” said Anderson, 27, who moved to Pontiac. “I was just so frustrated.“
In Inkster, 75 parents are still waiting for the district to set up tutoring. Officials say they’re finalizing contracts with tutoring companies.
Highland Park and Hamtramck only recently set up systems to transfer students and provide tutoring.
“We didn’t take it seriously enough,” said Camille Colatosti, president of the Hamtramck school board.
Some districts such as Pontiac are quick to point out that even though they offer the tutoring services, parents have not come forward to take advantage of them.
Administrators in Detroit and elsewhere say it’s been difficult to adapt to the law’s demands. And because the state released the second round of achievement results late in the school year, it has made it even harder to provide services quickly.
“It’s a shame that kids are suffering because of a lack of responsibility,” Anderson said. “It’s not happening fast enough.”
Nationally, only 1 percent of students changed schools this school year, and 46 percent of those eligible for tutoring took advantage of it under the law, according to a report by the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
Hess said several issues are behind the compliance problems. Districts obviously are not thrilled about spending money for tutoring services or transferring kids to better schools, he said. And states could be more proactive.
Key information missing
Part of the problem, some parents say, is that the letters they’ve received about services they are entitled to haven’t been clear.
When Rose Brys, 49, got a notice that her seventh-grade daughter’s school, Kosciuszko in Hamtramck, failed the standards and that her daughter could receive tutoring services, Brys thought she’d have to pay. She didn’t know the district was required to.
She thinks 14-year-old Victoria would have benefited from the help.
“I really can’t afford (a tutor),” Brys said. “I would have asked for the help. It didn’t spell it out.
Parents generally don’t know their rights, said Plank of The Education Policy Center.
“A very aggressive parent knows she has certain rights under the law,” he said. “Most folks are going to rely on their districts to do the right thing.”
Another problem is the difficulty in deciphering the 1,200-page law.
Mount Clemens has offered its 650 middle school students summer school but hasn’t told parents that a transfer is an option. Superintendent T.C. Wallace Jr. said that’s because the district has only one middle school.
Federal officials have a different interpretation: Districts should attempt to work out a deal with a nearby district that has a successful school or offer tutoring as a replacement.
The confusion doesn’t end there.
For example, the federal government says a school should consider transferring children to a charter school. It doesn’t have to be managed by the district, just located in the district as an alternative for parents.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure the child has the opportunity to attend schools which made (the standards),” said Nina Rees, deputy undersecretary of innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.
But the state education department has told districts a charter outside the district’s management wasn’t an option.
For parents, that confusion is troublesome.
Bessie Tolbert, 76, of Detroit, applied last fall to get tutoring for her 15-year-old great-granddaughter, Megan Crowell. The district first told her she didn’t qualify, then said she did. But Megan still hasn’t received the tutoring, Tolbert said. She suspects many other parents are in the same situation.
“They are disappointed and hopeless and feel they can do nothing about it,” Tolbert said.
MEAP guidelines are strict
Parents are discovering that high test scores alone don’t ensure success under the law.
The standards are based on test results from the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP. If fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, the school fails regardless of how well those students did.
Twenty-eight high schools in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties failed to make the required progress last year simply because they didn’t meet that 95 percent threshold.
West Bloomfield High School’s MEAP scores exceeded state averages by nearly 20 percentage points in 2002 but still failed to meet the federal benchmarks because only 80 percent of its students took the test.
“We’re being judged in this high-stakes process based on factors we have no control over,” said Steve Wasko, a spokesman for West Bloomfield schools. “That’s troublesome.”
Educators and parents worry that the results will be taken out of context by those who don’t understand that a school that failed the standards can fail for reasons other than academic performance.
Not only are parents studying the often complex results, but so are people and companies looking to relocate near successful schools.
“It is difficult to explain to the Board of Education,” let alone the public, said Jean Schmeichel, South Lyon’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Bertan checked out the state’s Web site to figure out why South Lyon High School failed but said others could easily misinterpret the data if they don’t look closely at it.
“You have to investigate,” he said. “But does every parent do that?”
Funding is inadequate
One of the loudest battle cries from critics of the law is that there’s no money attached to the requirements, leaving districts struggling to implement the law.
Schools that fail the standards have to set aside 20 percent of the funds they receive for low-income students for tutoring and transportation to successful schools. They normally would spend that money on things like books and reading coaches.
The Monroe school district had to eliminate 10 classroom assistants because it had to reserve the federal funds when its Lincoln Elementary failed the standards last year.
“When you’ve got to set aside that much money ... it impacts the school,” said Barry Martin, the district’s director of state and federal programs.
Supporters of the law dismiss the argument, saying state and local districts get more federal money for No Child Left Behind programs than ever before.
For fiscal year 2003, funding was $11.7 billion — 33 percent more than when the law was passed in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s a red herring,” said Jim Sandy, executive director for the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence.
Still, many schools say they are faced with added bureaucratic costs of setting up systems to transfer kids and offer tutoring or restructure the school altogether — one of the more severe consequences schools face when failing to meet the standards for five consecutive years. That is possible in Michigan because it and a dozen other states began tracking achievement when the federal government first required it in 1997.
“The nightmare of this is the paperwork,” said Gary Marx, Oak Park’s assistant superintendent. “It’s been like a snowfall ... of rules and regulations.”
Short staff is overworked
Under former Gov. John Engler, Michigan cut its Department of Education staff by almost 90 percent, said Plank.
It’s left a staff of 19 in the school improvement office to keep track of whether districts are complying with the law. Those same staffers are also responsible for helping the nine schools that were unaccredited and the 94 others that received a D grade from the state’s new report cards.
“We are setting up a thoughtful process for monitoring and supporting (districts),” said Yvonne Caamal Canul, director of the state’s office of school improvement.
Even then, it is unclear how intense the scrutiny will be.
And it’s not just a problem in Michigan, said Hess, with the Washington think tank. Because the federal government is still “feeling its way” on how to carry out the law, no state wants to clamp down too hard on districts because the regulations could be loosened, he said.
“Everyone is moving as cautiously as possible,” he said.
That doesn’t help Tolbert, who is frustrated her great-granddaughter missed out on tutoring she should have received.
“I felt as though we were deceived,” Tolbert said. “When I got the letter, I thought they were interested in these young minds.”
About the law
The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2002, is intended to hold schools accountable for the academic achievement of their students. It's also designed to give parents more options in their children's education. Here are a few of its key provisions:
Boosting student achievement:
The goal: For each school to have 100 percent of its students proficient in math, reading and science by 2014.
Each state will be required to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," toward state learning standards for all groups of students, including low-income students, racial/ethnic groups, disabled students and those with limited English skills. Adequate yearly progress is a measure of year-to-year student achievement set by each state.
Starting in 2005-06, students in grades 3 through 8 will be required to take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program or MEAP test, which is used as the performance measurement.
Schools will have to hit gradually increasing targets until 100 percent of students are proficient.
Improving teacher quality:
Goal: To have every teacher "highly qualified" by 2005-06.
States set their own criteria for what constitutes a "highly qualified" teacher. In Michigan, that means new teachers must have a bachelor's degree, state certification and a passing score on the state teacher's test in their subject area. Experienced teachers must have a bachelor's degree, state certification and either national certification, passing score on the state teacher's test, a master's degree or national certification.
Qualifications for teachers' aides will increase.
Holding schools accountable:
Goal: To ensure schools are making improvements.
If schools receiving federal money for disadvantaged students fail to meet the standards, they face penalties that increase with the number of consecutive years they fail.
Penalties include transferring students to another school in the district and paying transportation costs, offering tutoring and other similar services outside the school, restructuring staff, and being taken over by the state.
The law requires states, school districts and schools to issue report cards to parents of student performance and teacher qualifications.
About this series
TODAY: The federal No Child Left Behind Act has drawbacks that pose challenges for parents, students and educators.
MONDAY: The future under the federal education law includes more tests for students, stricter guidelines for teachers and higher odds of schools being labeled as failing.
Christine MacDonald and Maureen Feighan
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES