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NCLB Outrages

The Negative Impact of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

I would like to thank the Senator from Massachusetts (Senator Ted Kennedy) for constantly reminding us of the importance of education in enabling America’s families to improve their quality of life.

As we all know, the Senate – the Congress – is not expected to pass much more legislation this year, even though there is much more that should be done. Of the dozens of issues we have yet to consider, addressing the consequences of the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” (NCLB) is paramount.

When the NCLB was passed, there were many who lauded President Bush’s commitment to education. After all, who among us would allow any child to slip through the cracks in our education system if we could prevent it.

None of us would do that. And at the time, many thought that this sweeping legislation would fill those gaps.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.

The NCLB has done more harm than good, in more states than not.

My own state of Nevada is suffering under the burden of the unfunded mandates this law has imposed. In fact, a leading headline in the Reno Gazette-Journal this past Monday reads, “Educators give No Child Left Behind Act a Failing Grade.”

Let me give you a snapshot of the education landscape in Nevada. We have 17 counties, each with its own superintendent who oversees all educational programs. Statewide, we have approximately 400,000 students in our elementary and secondary education system, about 276,000 of whom are educated in Clark County. Clark County alone has a need for 2,000 teachers and spends more than $1 million annually in teacher recruitment efforts. Nevada ranks 49th in a national comparison of minority graduation rates, and overall we graduate about 63% of all students.

You will not meet one parent, teacher, principal, or superintendent who is not concerned about preserving and improving the quality of education in Nevada.

In fact, all of us are committed to giving every child the opportunity to graduate and obtain higher education. Whatever it takes for us to get there, we are going to do it. And in fact, Nevada did create its own accountability system that would work in our state, addressing the needs of our children, in our own way.

Then NCLB was passed … and now we are living in its wake.

It is ironic that this “sweeping” education reform legislation authored by President Bush is receiving a failing grade from the very school systems it was intended to help.

More than two years later, parents are still struggling to understand the basics of the law, especially when they learn about terms like “annual yearly progress” and “failing school.” As a parent, you want the best for your children, and it is disturbing to be told that the school your child attends is now considered “failing.”

I have tried to help improve NCLB by introducing and supporting measures that will help, not hurt, our most vulnerable educational communities. Let me give you an example:

Every day, rural communities are confronted by a shortage of resources. It may surprise some people to know there are still small towns in rural America where the citizens wait for a doctor to make rounds, a mail truck to drop off the mail. These families have elected to stay in their communities despite all the obstacles, and they deserve an opportunity to enjoy a good quality of life.

That’s why I introduced a bill, the “Assisting America’s Rural Schools Act” that addressed the concerns of rural school systems trying to comply with the teacher quality standards set by the NCLB.

Many years ago when I was in school in Searchlight, we had one teacher who taught grades 1 through 8, and there are still schools in Nevada where this is the case. The small town of Austin in Lander County, Nevada, is one such community. Austin boasts a grand total of 63 students in grades K-12. For grades 6-12, there are only three teachers for all subjects. Yes, only three teachers.

These teachers are considered “highly qualified” in science, English, math, and physical education. In order for Austin to acquire a teacher who is “highly qualified” in the subject of history, the LEA must either find and recruit another teacher, or send one of its three current teachers back to school to get accredited in history via distance learning. Unfortunately, Lander County doesn’t have the money to do either of these things.

Make no mistake about it: The issue is not whether teachers in rural areas should be qualified to teach multiple subjects – they should. However, requiring them to attain “highly qualified” status in all subjects simultaneously is unreasonable.

My bill gave rural school systems some flexibility in meeting the definition of a “highly qualified teacher,” without diminishing high accountability standards for teachers. Rural school districts would be able to give a one-year exemption to any teacher who is already highly qualified in at least one core academic subject. A highly qualified teacher who is working toward that certification in another subject can still teach both subjects.

I was pleased that the Department of Education adopted the principle of this bill last month. Teachers in eligible rural districts who are highly qualified in at least one subject will now have three years to become highly qualified in the additional subjects they teach.

I am certain that rural school districts and teachers are relieved that the Administration recognized the burden that NCLB had placed upon them. But that was just one of the many glitches in this mammoth bill. How many more will they face in the coming years?

Superintendent Jim Hager, who is responsible for educating 60,000 students in Washoe County, Nevada, gave me an honest assessment of what is going on with NCLB throughout my state - and probably everyone else’s.

One of his chief frustrations is that all students in all districts must show annual progress in math, English, and science by 2014.

That’s a noble goal, but Jim says it’s never going to happen … and here’s why.

There are thousands of students who come into the Nevada school system facing formidable challenges … learning disabilities, language barriers, or influences beyond their control attributed to their living conditions.

These challenges are significant. And often times, the school system is expected to be the primary institution to fix, help, or remove these obstacles to effective learning.

No Child Left Behind expects these school districts to turn these troubled children into top-flight students within one year’s time – without receiving full funding from the federal government to do so. If the schools don’t turn these kids around in a timely manner, they go on a “watch list” – a list of schools on the verge of being branded as “failing.”

I believe we should hold our teachers and students accountable.

But if we expect them to achieve miracles, without providing the resources they need, we are just setting them up for failure.

That’s what this bill is doing. It isn’t helping children learn, and it isn’t helping teachers teach.

Testing a child to make him learn is like weighing a steer to make him gain weight … it just won’t work.

The NCLB is having a ripple effect throughout Nevada, and throughout the nation. That’s why I’m going to sit down with every county superintendent in the state next month, and ask them what needs to be fixed and in what priority. We need relief in Nevada and if we have to do it bit by bit, then we will. But this law as it stands puts our education system in peril.

Nevada isn’t the only state having difficulties implementing this law. It is a national problem. Thousands of school districts are already trying to juggle school construction costs, increasing graduation rates, finding money for textbooks, reducing class sizes, and figuring out what to do about overcrowded high schools.

During the April recess, I spoke with concerned citizens in Nevada about the issue of overcrowded high schools. There is one high school in Clark County with almost 5,000 students. And we aren’t alone … more than 70 percent of our nation’s high schools have 1,500 or more students.

When the President signed the NCLB, he signaled his support for the programs that were supposed to help students learn … including smaller schools and smaller classes.

In contrast to that promise, the President’s FY05 budget zeroes out the Smaller Learning Communities program.

Senator Bingaman and I along with 14 other colleagues sent a letter to the Labor, HHS Subcommittee requesting that funding be restored at $200 million for FY05.

Common sense tells us that students do best when they receive plenty of personal attention from their teachers. Studies tell us the same thing.

According to the Department of Education, research suggests that the positive outcomes associated with smaller schools stem from their ability to create close, personal environments where teachers can work with a small set of students, to challenge and inspire them.

Smaller learning communities can be achieved in different ways, including small learning clusters, career academies, magnet programs, and schools-within-a-school.

It would seem to me that if the Bush Administration really wants to help our teachers teach … and help our students learn … they wouldn’t be trying to eliminate a program to create smaller learning communities, which have been proven to do just that.

I have touched on just a few of the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act.

It is going to take a lot of hard work to improve this bill and make it what it promised to be … a tool that will help the teachers and students in every public school in America.

It’s a difficult job, but we must keep our promise to America’s children. We can’t afford to leave them behind.

— Senator Harry Reid
Floor Statement



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