NCLB Update: Showing Up and Other Details
Public schools face many problems. Some we brought on ourselves, like low standards in the name of self-esteem, lax discipline masquerading as compassion, and aimlessness disguised as child-centered education.
Schools also grapple with societal issues. Poverty, racial and ethnic divides, corruption, and bureaucracy affect us all, but they're more pervasive features of larger city systems. For 40 years, reformers have attempted to solve these socioeconomic problems as if they were educational problems and as if they affected all schools the way they trouble New York and Los Angeles.
The "No Child Left Behind" Act continues the tradition of offering solutions to problems that most schools don't have. Even when districts contend with similar issues, the solutions for Hartford, Connecticut, aren't likely to be the same as the remedies for Hartford, Vermont.
Vermont's education commissioner formerly worked in New York. He contends that NCLB's authors "forgot about Vermont, Wyoming, Montana when they designed this law." Apparently, those aren't the only places they forgot about. According to an Associated Press report, "a dozen states" from Virginia to Utah are currently "rebelling" against NCLB. An Education Week poll estimates that 28 percent of American voters now oppose the law, up dramatically from eight percent a year ago.
NCLB's sponsors wanted all schools to improve, but the "no child" they were primarily worried about leaving behind was a poor, minority kid in a city classroom. That's why they required that districts break down their testing data into demographic subgroups based on race, ethnicity, income, language, and disability. That way no subgroup would be left behind either. Ninety-five percent of a school's registered students and 95 percent of the students in each subgroup have to take the annual assessments required by the law. Bear in mind that registered students aren't necessarily attending students.
If just one subgroup fails to make "adequate yearly progress," the entire school or district fails. In Massachusetts, 94 percent of the state's districts scored high enough to make adequate yearly progress, but two thirds were listed as failing because not all their subgroups made the cut.
Even worse, if a school falls short of 95 percent participation, even in just one subgroup, NCLB also designates the school as failing and subject to the law's sanctions, including funding cuts and the termination of local control.
Admittedly, some schools manipulate the numbers. Three Illinois districts redefined "junior" not as someone in the third year of high school, but as someone with enough credits to graduate the following year. As a result, 20 percent of their lowest performing eleventh graders were no longer juniors, and their schools' scores improved.
Most schools, though, wind up in trouble simply because too many students don't show up. California officials reported that "nearly two thirds" of their high schools "failed on participation rate only." Participation rate was also the "leading reason" for failure in Texas and Boston. In Green Bay all five failing schools were cited "strictly because of participation."
New Jersey's governor was irate when one of his state's "finest schools" failed because three special needs students didn't take a test. An Alaska high school failed when three of its 52 economically disadvantaged students were absent. A Michigan middle school also missed the cut-off by "less than one percentage point." In Georgia 187 schools failed "solely because they missed the 95 percent threshold."
Federal officials acknowledged similar problems in "almost every state." They've since relented slightly to permit emergency medical excuses and to allow schools to average their participation rates over three years. This hasn't eased many minds.
One Green Bay principal has resorted to "knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, and actually transporting students to school when we could find them." An anxious Georgia principal raffled off movie tickets and MP3 players in a desperate attempt to lure kids into school on testing day.
Schools employ these tactics so their scores will be valid according to NCLB. Except if we're judging a school's performance, how valid are the scores of students the school doesn't get to educate? You wouldn't judge my doctor by my health if I don't go for treatment when I'm sick. In the same way, it doesn't make sense to hold schools accountable for the scores of students who don't regularly attend school, kids that hopefully we'll be able to find or that we have to bribe with movie tickets. How can anyone possibly blame me for what someone who doesn't show up doesn't know?
Yet this law does blame me. And it blames my school.
And that's only one of the ways NCLB doesn't make sense.
We need to hold schools and teachers accountable for the job they do. It's wrong to ignore their shortcomings and failures because those failures hurt students and society.
But it's just as wrong and counterproductive to blame schools for things that aren't their fault. A law that turns good schools upside down hurts us just as much.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield Middle School.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES