NCLB: Deck stacked against schools with special needs?
"It doesn't make sense to spend more money on a bad law."
In the world of television sound bites, the political arguments over the No Child Left Behind Act sometimes go something like this.
Democrats: President George Bush should be criticized because he pushed for passage of the new federal education law and now he's not funding it at the promised levels.
Republicans: President Bush should be commended for passage of No Child Left Behind, which makes schools accountable for student performance, and also for significantly increasing the amount of federal money spent on education.
Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., has a different take on the law.
"It doesn't make sense to spend more money on a bad law," Neill said.
At the same time, Neill said, real educational reform would require "spending a lot more money than No Child Left Behind authorizes."
Neill said No Child Left Behind is flawed because its accountability standards are much too rigid. He said it doesn't take into account the large number of students who enter a classroom and are well behind their peers.
Such students might include a child from a foreign country who enrolls in an American school and is several years behind his or her classmates.
That student may learn a lot of English during the course of a school year and may even make more than one year of academic progress, Neill said.
But if that child does not match the academic level of his classmates who started the school year far ahead of him, then No Child Left Behind will say that student failed to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.
If that school has enough foreign-born students with similar stories, the building will be labeled "a school in need of improvement, which is another way of saying that it is failing," Neill said.
In Nebraska, a school must have 30 students in such a subcategory as English language learners before the Nebraska Department of Education considers the test sample to be large enough to provide statistically reliable results.
In some parts of the country, Neill said, that can lead to schools gaming the system.
"One school has 32 students (in one of the categories measured by NCLB), and another has 25 students," Neill said. "The district moves three students from one school to the other. That way, neither school has to comply with the law."
The law comes down most heavily on Title 1 schools, which are low-income schools that receive federal money to help improve student achievement.
Jim Werth, Grand Island assistant superintendent for student services, noted that Omaha Westside was one of many large Nebraska schools that failed to meet the AYP provisions in No Child Left Behind. But Westside does not receive Title 1 money, so it has relatively little at stake compared to a district such as Grand Island, which has a number of Title 1 schools.
Neill said a few schools have even considered giving up their federal money because of the cost involved with complying with No Child Left Behind.
Title 1 schools that spend an extended period of time on the "in need of improvement" list can face some harsh sanctions. But Neill contended that sanctions against "low-performing" schools have not been shown to be effective. He named four possible punishments.
"You can fire the teachers and the principal," Neill said. But he argued that test scores don't go up unless you also change the student body, which can be done through use of a magnet school. Magnet schools may attract higher-performing students so test scores go up, but they do little to help lower-performing students.
"You can make the school a charter school," Neill said. Charter schools are either public or private schools exempted from many of the rules governing normal public schools. The theory is that charter schools are then free to develop innovative programs to raise student achievement. But Neill said, "Some work well; some don't."
"You can turn the school over to a private management company," he said. "Edison schools are constantly failing."
"You can have a state takeover of the schools. New Jersey took over three districts," Neill said. "They got rid of corruption, which was a good thing, but there was no real evidence of significant educational improvement."
Before schools reach such drastic points, states are supposed to provide technical assistance, Neill said. But too often, states don't or can't rise to the challenge. He said Massachusetts has hundreds of schools that should qualify for professional assistance, but the state is only providing aid to about 20 schools.
All 'in need of improvement?'
Only five of Grand Island's 18 schools were judged as having met the adequate yearly progress provisions of No Child Left Behind.
However, Grand Island has lots of company across the nation.
The Center on Educational Policy did a study of the impact of the second year of No Child Left Behind and found that:
21 percent of all school districts had at least one school identified as "in need of improvement." The first year, the number was 15 percent.
50 percent of urban school districts had at least one school "in need of improvement." The first year, the number was 40 percent.
86 percent of the nation's very largest districts had at least one school on the "in need of improvement" list. In the first year of the No Child Left Behind law, that number was 67 percent.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has predicted that "nearly all schools will eventually be rated 'in need of improvement' because of the way the adequate yearly progress statistics are calculated."
The center went on to predict that, "while diverse, high-poverty schools will fail and be punished sooner, the consensus among researchers is that almost every school will eventually fall short of the arbitrary improvement requirements."
Grand Island Independent
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES