Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind policy offers a rare opportunity to improve public education.
The scheduled 2007 reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act opens a window of opportunity for those concerned about public education. For the past six years, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has tried to implement the omnibus act with mixed success, and has often turned a deaf ear to concerns of state officials charged with its implementation. Within the education industry, a cacophony of strident complaints and defenses, condemnations and praises, conspiracy theories and dismissals has been non-stop since its passage in 2002. The reauthorization process allows for adjustments to existing policies and an opportunity for local and state-level policymakers to rise above the cacophony, and offer a set of well-considered revisions for consideration. This article offers some suggestions for policymakers as they consider possible revisions to NCLB.
First, it is important to state that NCLB has some very good facets that need to be retained. No Child Left Behind is an omnibus piece of federal legislation trying to achieve a noble goal. It shifts the focus of educational policy discussions and local decision making from examining aggregate achievement information to examining disaggregated achievement data according to a wide variety of demographic characteristics. As Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings summarized for USA Today, “It has built an appetite to pay attention to kids who have been overlooked previously.” For this alone, NCLB and its authors should be commended.
I am grateful for the focus NCLB has had on the academic achievement of this special population of students as well as the financial support that has come with it. These kids were often overlooked, appeased, or not taken seriously by teachers who thought they were doing them a favor by not holding them accountable to the same standards as the others in the class. NCLB has changed that.
Joe Bellacero, a New York educator, took a broader view in further supporting this position, writing,
The primary purpose and value of the NCLB Act is to bring about a closing of the achievement gap between high and low achieving students. … The Act recognizes that there is no genetic, no racial, no inherent reason for this gap. It is determined to allow every child in America an equal chance at a good education. Personally, I think that’s about as good an American idea as there is—worth arguing for, worth fighting for, worth paying for!
However, noble intentions are not enough. Grave concerns exist throughout the nation regarding some basic design features of NCLB, as well as the heavy-handedness of the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) interpretation of NCLB. It appears from their actions that the USDOE is more concerned with compliance to its interpretation of the law than it is with supporting genuine improvement efforts. This choice may be expected from a large, ossified bureaucracy. Too often, organizations focused on compliance to regulations, above the attainment of the goals toward which the regulations are directed, succeed in gaining compliance, but not in improving local outcomes. Far more frequently, unintended consequences prove counterproductive to the original goals. Educational policy literature is rife with examples of policies focused on compliance producing outcomes antithetical to the goal of the original policies. It would be a shame if the USDOE continues to rely on a rigid model of policy implementation that has been demonstrated to be suboptimal at best, and harmful at worst.
NCLB reauthorization recommendations
Support common-sense flexibility
As reported in Education Week, current USDOE interpretation of NCLB does not allow for the use of an adaptive level testing model in Idaho’s Comprehensive Assessment Plan. The reasoning is that “state assessment systems used for Title I accountability assess students on grade level using the aligned content and performance standards for each selected grade level” (USDOE, January 18, 2002).
As purposefully designed, the adaptive level testing component of the Idaho Comprehensive Assessment Plan will accurately assess where students are according to the entire K-12 aligned academic content and achievement standards, including—but not limited to—the specific grade level of the students’ age cohort. Thus, our assessment plan will identify students performing above and below grade level, and will accurately convey to students, teachers and parents how far from grade level students are performing. This meets both the intent and the letter of Title I, section 1111 (b) (3) (C) (ii), which reads, “Such assessments shall … be aligned with the State’s challenging academic content and student academic achievement standards, and provide coherent information about student attainment of such standards.”
It is important to support President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in their pledge to provide appropriate flexibility to states in meeting federal guidelines and to hold them accountable to this pledge. If assessment systems (including Idaho’s) can accomplish the vision and mission of NCLB, those systems should be viewed as compliant with the intent of the ESEA and Title I. The Department of Education must recognize the tremendous potential value of varied assessment systems to educators with varied needs. Only by allowing flexibility for local educators to achieve national goals can attainment of those goals be maximized.
Redesign adequate yearly progress (AYP) policies
Adequate yearly progress provides the backbone for the NCLB act and the sanctions/interventions associated with Title I. As currently designed, NCLB mandates every student in the United States must be on grade level by the school year 2013-2014. AYP is a mechanism through which data is disaggregated for each subgroup of the student population, and the percent meeting standards is reported publicly. Any school in which any subgroup does not meet the percentage goal for students meeting standards is reported as “in need of improvement.” Such schools then proceed into a series of corrective actions or sanctions. If AYP is not achieved,
For two years: Children may attend another public school within the district, at the district’s expense.
Three major flaws currently exist in the policies involving AYP. First, AYP does not measure the yearly progress of the same students over time. For example, it compares the achievement of this year’s fourth-graders against next year’s-fourth graders. In small districts, the variation from one group to the next can be enormous, enough to make year to year comparisons meaningless. Instead, the USDOE could focus on progress by comparing the percent of this year’s fourth-graders meeting standards to next year’s fifth-graders. Following a cohort through the school system will provide more accurate and useful information to both local and state-level policymakers.
The second major flaw involves the use of subgroup data to identify schools as “in need of improvement.” As currently designed, NCLB does not allow for differentiation between such schools. Therefore, the state is mandated to treat all schools failing to meet standards in exactly the same manner. While in theory this may appear fair, in practice it results in the overidentification of schools in need of improvement. Schools with a few children in one population subgroup failing to meet standards are treated in exactly the same manner as schools with large numbers of children across many subgroups failing to meet standards. This policy flaw then dictates that interventions be implemented in all “failing” schools, thus diluting the pool of available resources and diminishing the potential effects of the interventions. A better approach would allow states to engage in a sort of triage, or prioritization, in the allocation of limited state resources.
Support high quality teaching
NCLB requires that every child be taught by a teacher who is “highly qualified.” This is a great idea and deserves much support. A plethora of research has demonstrated that teacher quality is the biggest single factor in producing student learning. However, being a highly qualified teacher and being a high quality teacher may be two different things.
Secondary teachers (grades 7-12) are asked only to demonstrate their competence in their subject matter area. While subject matter expertise is foundational to teacher success, it is insufficient. High quality teaching requires a complex set of cognitive, interpersonal and managerial skills which must be demonstrated in a classroom.
Rebalance the curriculum
Through focusing only on mathematics and reading, NCLB has generated the unintended consequence of students actually learning less overall through a phenomenon called “curricular narrowing.” According to the Center of Educational Policy, placing so much emphasis on reading and math tests has prompted thousands of schools to reduce, and even eliminate, time spent on other subjects. “What we’re getting under (the law) is a very strong emphasis on building skills at the expense of history, literature and science,” reports researcher Thomas Toch of the Education Sector, a Washington think tank. The addition of science to the battery of standardized assessments over this next year should mitigate this phenomenon, at least for science. However, a serious problem is developing within our nation’s elementary schools in which administrators are directing teachers to focus only on reading and math to maximize test scores. While maximizing learning is a great goal, focusing on test scores to the detriment of other curricular areas is not. T. Brady, a teacher for 38 years, reports that:
teaching to the test (test-prep) is only bad when the test is bad. Teaching to the test is what happens in many professions. I’m glad that airline pilots have their final ‘test’ in mind in every course that they take. When the outcomes are clear and valuable, and the test measures these outcomes, then it’s clearly a valuable experience. When the test is trivial, the teaching to it is a waste of time. (www.teachermagazine.org 01/11/07)
During the reauthorization process, careful thought must be given to balancing the need of maintaining the system of accountability that has generated an increased focus on the academic achievement of all children, with the need for those same children to be well-rounded in the knowledge base.
Provide support for non Title I schools in Idaho
Specific to Idaho is the application of NCLB requirements and sanctions to non-Title I schools. When drafting the accountability plan for the state of Idaho, the Office of the State Board of Education chose to extend the applicability of the policies within NCLB to all Idaho public schools. While seeking to ensure that all Idaho children learn and achieve to state standards is a noble goal, enforcing the same mandates on non-Title I schools without the accompanying Title I funds is problematic. The result of this unfunded mandate is the required shifting of a school’s limited funding from operating the school to complying with State Board rules. So concerned were a group of parents that during the 2006 legislative session, the Parent/Community Advisory Council (P/CAC) lobbied the Legislature for a remedy. The outcome was the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 66 that read, in part:
Now, therefore, be it resolved by the members of the Second Regular Session of the Fifty-eighth Idaho Legislature, the House of Representatives and the Senate concurring therein, that the Idaho State Board of Education is urged to propose changes to the NCLB Compliance Agreement Plan implementing NCLB in the state of Idaho that would place a temporary suspension on the imposition of sanctions on the non-Title I schools until twelve months after state funding is made available.
Now, during the budget negotiation process of the 2007 Legislature, it remains to be seen if HCR will have the desired result.
Duncan, C. M. (1999). Worlds apart: Why poverty persists in rural America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hammer, P. C. (2001). Joining rural development theory and rural education practice. Charleston, WV: Appalachia Educational Laboratory, Inc.
Nadel, W. & Sagawa, S. (2002). America's forgotten children: Child poverty in rural America (Report to Save the Children, America's Forgotten Children campaign). Washington D.C.: Save The Children.
Salant, P., & Porter, A. (2005). Profile of rural Idaho: A look at economic and social trends affecting rural Idaho.
Stern, J. (1994). The condition of education of rural schools. Washington D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement U.S. Department of Education.
Recommended Web sites
Education Trust (2006). How does Idaho achievement compare? www.edtrust.org
1 Kannapel, P. J., & DeYoung, A. J. (1999). The rural school problem in 1999: A review and critique of the literature. Research in Rural Education, 15(2), 67-79.
2 Howley, C. B. (2000). School district size and school performance. Rural Education Issue Digest. Retrieved 5/20/04, from www.ael.org/rel/rural/index.htm
3 Idaho State Department of Education. Retrieved 1/12/07, from www.sde.idaho.gov/naep/
4 Education Trust (2006). How does Idaho achievement compare? Retrieved 1/12/07, from www.edtrust.orgx
5 Howley, C. B., Harmon, H. L., & Leopald, G. D. (1996). Rural scholars or bright rednecks? Aspirations for a sense of place among rural youth in Appalachia. Research in Rural Education, 12(3), 150-160.
6 Barley, Z. A., & Beesley, A. D. (2007). Rural school success: What can we learn? Journal of Research in Rural Education, 22(1), 1-11.