School Officials, In Survey, Fault Education Law
The get-tough approach taken by the federal No Child Left Behind Act won't help struggling schools get better, many of Connecticut's school administrators say in a survey to be released today.
A statewide survey of principals and superintendents gives mostly harsh reviews of the government's sweeping school reform act, which calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to produce results.
Although No Child Left Behind has helped schools focus on low-performing groups of children, its potential "is being seriously undercut by fundamental flaws in its design," says a survey conducted by Yale University law students.
More than two-thirds of the superintendents who answered the survey said the law's penalties for low performance would harm, rather than help, public schools.
Under the law, schools that don't make sufficient academic progress can be required to offer individual tutoring or to let students transfer to other schools. If the failure continues, schools can be subject to further penalties, including total reorganization.
Most administrators also said the law lacks adequate funding, uses flawed measurement techniques and sets unrealistic goals, especially for non-English speakers and students in special education classes.
The survey by Yale Law School's Legislative Advocacy Clinic and the research and advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children echoes criticisms heard nationwide of the most sweeping federal education legislation in nearly 30 years. It is designed to be used by lawmakers and policy officials.
President Bush pushed hard for the reform law, but almost from the moment he signed it early in 2002, teacher unions, school boards and other education groups criticized it and lobbied Congress to modify it.
U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb defended the law, saying that it has had a positive effect. "It's unfortunate that some choose to see the glass as half empty instead of half full," she said.
In Connecticut, about one in four high schools and one in five elementary and middle schools has been cited for failing to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind. Those numbers are expected to increase as the law gradually raises the standards.
Today's 56-page report is based on responses of about 300 administrators statewide and on personal interviews in four school systems: New Haven, Meriden, New Milford and West Hartford.
Asked whether they agreed that the law would "lead to an increase in student achievement over time," superintendents were almost evenly split, with 49 percent agreeing and 48 percent disagreeing. The report quotes an unnamed superintendent as saying, "I believe that NCLB may lead to an increase in student achievement in the narrowly tested areas. Overall, it will detract from achievement in non-tested areas."
The report also found that:
Nearly nine of 10 superintendents who responded said the law's annual goals on student progress are neither appropriate nor achievable.
Almost all superintendents, 97 percent, said that neither the federal government nor the state has provided enough money to meet the law's requirements.
About three of five principals said that the law relies too heavily on standardized testing. One frequent complaint was that the tests measure school improvement by comparing the progress of completely different groups of students - such as measuring the test scores of this year's fourth graders against those of last year's.
Many administrators contended that the law is unfair to special education students and non-English speakers. In interviews, they urged changes such as allowing special education students to take lower-grade level academic tests or permitting non-English speakers to take translated versions of the tests. Although some states provide translated versions, Connecticut does not.
Although critics throughout the nation have voiced similar concerns, the law has drawn support from some educators who say that it has forced schools to focus on helping low-income children, minority students and others who otherwise might have been neglected.
Recent test scores from several states have shown early signs of progress for minority students and low-income children, according to an analysis by the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington.
Nevertheless, the results of the Connecticut survey are not surprising, said Ross Wiener, Education Trust's policy director. He said that educators and their professional organizations "by and large have been very defensive" about No Child Left Behind.
"It's so dispiriting," he said. "The achievement gaps in Connecticut are about as big as anywhere in the country. While Connecticut is doing pretty well with white and affluent students, it's not doing an adequate job with students of color and low-income children."
The complete report may be seen online at www.ctkidslink.org.
Robert A. Frahm
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES