Learning Curve

After two years, the report card on No Child Left Behind is decidedly mixed.

Tue Mar. 16, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Fifty years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision integrated the nation's public schools, the Bush administration is celebrating two years of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both were designed to level opportunities for young students regardless of race or economic background, but concerns are brewing among education and business leaders that the 2002 law hurts disadvantaged children more than it helps them, and puts all American education in peril.

NCLB was regarded as an early Bush victory, but it hasn't come up a lot in this year's jobs-dominated presidential election season. Whether or not it becomes a campaign issue in the short term, the argument will only grow louder over the next decade as schools grapple with the need to meet arbitrary standards, as some see it, under stressed budgets.

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The law requires that schools test students annually to verify reading and math proficiency. Schools failing to meet national success rates face the threat of closure and must give students free tutoring -- states shoulder 90 percent of education costs despite the law's 36 percent boost in federal funding -- or allow them to switch to a better-rated institution.

So far only 20 states have set up the necessary tests. More than a dozen states are bemoaning federal intrusion into what were once regional standards and are now demanding greater flexibility from the government. Many schools meeting state achievement criteria are getting Fs on the national report card.

States with large minority populations, especially those with large numbers of immigrant children learning English as a second language, already lag behind other regions and will continue to sink, some experts say. In more bad news, a Harvard study recently found that schools are as segregated as they were in 1969. A study reported in January that 83 percent of ethnically homogenous California schools were likely to meet the law's demands but only 40 percent of diverse, inner city districts could boast the same. A study by Dartmouth College and the UCLA forecast two years ago that diverse schools were most likely to fail compliance with the act.

Still, U.S. News and World Report finds that race no longer matters in quite the way it once did:

As the racially charged fights over desegregation recede into the past, a new national debate over how to close the minority achievement gap has emerged. Not only is integration hard to achieve, but it is no longer universally assumed to be the key to excellence. If anything, the argument has been reversed: To have any hope of luring whites into majority-black schools, educators must first raise academic achievement in those classrooms. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act is the most prominent example of this intellectual shift. The law does not concern itself with how integrated a school is. It simply demands achievement from every student, in every school.

Critics of the law say it relies on "fuzzy math" to humiliate and flunk schools for falling mere decimal points short of minimums. Instead of broadening educational choice and establishing excellence, they say it achieves the opposite effect of its feted title and deprives poor students of well-rounded learning.

U.S. News & World Report explains:

For its part, the Bush administration has … eased accountability requirements for non-English-speaking and disabled students, thus lowering the number of schools that will be labeled as failing. But it has also warned states that if they drop out of the program, all of their federal education funding for disadvantaged kids--not just No Child Left Behind grants--will be cut. That could mean a revenue loss of almost 15 percent in some poorer districts.

This year, some 6,000 schools were labeled "in need of improvement." That number could increase to 25,000, or about one third of the nation's schools, as more of the law's accountability standards kick in over the next two years.

State report cards for schools often clash with federal guidelines--marking schools labeled excellent locally as failures, according to Education Week. Twenty-one states instituted their own measurements of school success. In North Carolina, for one, 90 percent of schools met state achievement levels but only 47 percent did so nationally.

Michael Dobbs explainsthe difficulties of such a demand in the Washington Post :

Some educators argue that the law is exacerbating a shortage of good teachers, particularly in schools that receive federal subsidies and cater to large numbers of disadvantaged students. Under No Child Left Behind, such schools are already required to hire only highly qualified teachers. The additional paperwork, some principals say, compounds an already complicated recruiting challenge.

The law requires that teachers have experience in their field of teaching, a bachelor's degree and state certification--a difficult feat for teachers, especially outside cities, who juggle multiple subjects. On Monday the Bush administration gave some rural schools an extra year to prove that they deserve to stay open.

Despite this leeway, the law rates students' abilities on four levels, without defining what "below basic" to "advanced" mean. Dan Seligman of Forbes argues that this in fact lowers minimum standards because some opt out of definitions set forth by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Seligman blasts NCLB for its fundamental flaws of logic:

[T]he law's main problem continues to be unrepresented in the news stories. The problem is that some students are not smart enough to do well on tests. This might be considered too obvious to mention but for some astounding details about No Child. For openers, it proposes to eliminate--not reduce, eliminate--the "achievement gap" between prosperous and impoverished students. The gap is tremendous and in large measure reflects socioeconomic IQ differences. The states with the most students eligible for the federal free/reduced lunch program (a fairly good indicator of poverty status) reliably produce the lowest reading and math scores.

But No Child's IQ problem is not just a matter of social class differences. The law also states, insanely, that by 2014 all American students must be "proficient" in reading and math. Any school at which this doesn't happen will suffer severe penalties, up to and including a takeover by the state. Yet the shape of the bell curve guarantees that most schools will fail. No amount of accountability, incentives and superduper teaching can possibly get all the kids in any sizable school up to 100% proficiency by 2014. The act supported by all those hardheaded businessmen is utterly utopian.

And Steven Phillips of the Times Educational Supplement finds that the race to play catch-up with remedial students excludes some 3 million "gifted" U.S. children.

Escalating sanctions, triggered by failing to meet annual proficiency goals, are pushing schools to plunge resources into remedial education at the expense of programmes to encourage their cleverest students.

However, while No Child Left Behind has prompted schools to shift resources from gifted learning, a countervailing result of its emphasis on test scores has been reluctance to transfer high-scoring students to full-time academies and watch average marks suffer.

Phillips and groups like the American Federation of School Administrators bemoan the creation, as they see it, of a generation of mediocre minds. The law forces schools to "teach to the test," shunning the humanities for easily measurable math and science and thus stiffing students on a well-rounded curriculum, as Time magazine reports (subscription):

Here are some of the things kids at Garfield/Franklin elementary in Muscatine, Iowa, no longer do: eagle watch on the Mississippi River, go on field trips to the University of Iowa's Museum of Natural History and have two daily recesses. A sensible bargain has been struck: literacy first, canoe trips later. But there are more substantive losses too. Creative writing, social studies and computer work have all become occasional indulgences. Now that the standardized fill-in-the-bubble test is the foundation upon which public schools rest--now that a federal law called No Child Left Behind mandates that kids as young as 9 meet benchmarks in reading and math or jeopardize their schools' reputation--there is little time for anything else.

Who demanded these kinds of standards? Despite the direct effects on their members, teachers unions were largely silent before the law passed. Many business leaders, however, voiced their support. Former New Yorker writer Nichlolas Lemann toldPBS's Frontline in 2002 how standardized test companies, who produce most of the nation's textbooks, influenced passage of the law.

The analogy would be the defense contractors' relationship to the Pentagon. The test companies are where the state has to go to buy their equipment, and they have a very close, complicated, intense relationship with the state Ed. Departments, so they tend not to get left out of the process.

So I think it's wrong to say it's only coming out of business. But it is right to say that the most important wholesale reform movement of the last generation in American public education has been imposed on educators from without, rather than having been suggested by them. And indeed many, or even most, educators are against standards, or are very lukewarm about them.

Conservative columnist George Will of the Washington Post backs the law and challenges Democrats to come up with a better alternative:

Teachers unions recoil from accountability and resent evidence that whatever is wrong cannot be cured by increased funding. But per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is three times what it was 40 years ago, and the pupil-teacher ratio is 40 percent lower, yet reading scores are essentially unchanged.

Today the argument is about standards. That is progress that will not be easily reversed, partly because it is popular with a constituency, the inner-city poor, that Democrats often abuse in order to mollify a rival constituency, the teachers unions.

Republicans were proud that Bush achieved bipartisan support for the sweeping domestic law some three months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. In their eyes, Clinton failed to reform healthcare during his first year in office, but Bush pushed through the largest federal attempt at education reform since 1965. Even "Massachusetts liberal" Senator Ted Kennedy supported it -- though he's now distancing himself from its shortcomings.

A National Review editorial (subscription) assesses the political outcome:

If opposition to the reform grows and the sweeping plan fails to deliver on its ambitious goals, Democrats will strengthen their advantage on education issues--and Republicans alone will be held responsible for the most unpopular regime Washington ever attempted to impose on our public schools.

Schools have one decade to meet these requirements but many think the law have to shift its rigid definitions of school success. What are some of the possible solutions?

In Business Week (subscription), William Symonds suggests fixing No Child by making its deadlines and standards more flexible. He agrees with the Teaching Commission, a thinktank headed by a former IBM chairman, which recommends luring educators into rough urban schools with higher pay than their suburban counterparts. "The law was a great start," Symonds says. "Now that lawmakers can see its shortcomings, they need to act. The worst that could happen is that No Child is left unchanged, blowing apart the consensus on reform -- and leaving behind yet another generation."

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