Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

The keystone of educational change over the past decade has been No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Even such a prominent proponent of educational change as Senator Edward Kennedy got behind this legislative change promoted by George W. Bush. Obama has proposed a number of changes in NCLB but has not abandoned the program itself. These developments are very unfortunate, because the high-stakes testing inherent in NCLB has caused distortions in the entire public school curriculum. The Chicago Tribune’s study of the impact NCLB was having on public schools in Illinois found that some school districts had lengthened the school day to allow more time to prepare students on how to take a test; some school districts dropped courses being taught to focus more time on test-taking; one school district even developed a new course on test-taking; and one school district gave gifts of stereos, TV sets and other electronic gadgets to those who had done well on standardized tests. The Tribune also found that teachers were giving their students test items that were very closely related to items that they would find on the NCLB testing — this sort of thing is commonly referred to as “teaching to the test.”

The epitome of trying to game the system came in July 2011 when a big story broke that over 70 teachers and principals in the Atlanta, Georgia school system were found to have been changing students’ answers on a standardized test designed to measure students’ proficiency. The chief administrator of the school system was reported to have recived large bonuses due to a dramatic improvement in students’ test scores.

The keystone of NCLB is Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), through which goals are raised annually, with the target of all school districts reaching 100 percent proficiency in 2014. Within the past year there was a story about the small percentage of students in Florida public school districts achieving AYP. When I picked up the July 23, 2011 Albuquerque Journal, the lead headline read “87% of N.M.’s Schools Get Failing Grades.” Across the state, 13 percent of schools made AYP but only four percent in the Albuquerque Public Schools. This lead story was a big surprise to me, since only a few months earlier the Albuquerque Journal ran a story showing that most schools met state proficiency standards. The NCLB standards are so hard to meet that at least some states are developing their own proficiency standards. The relatively new secretary of education in New Mexico has introduced an A-F grading system for the schools themselves. 

A major premise of NCLB is that students in a failing school are supposed to be able to transfer to a school meeting AYP; however, so many schools are failing to meet AYP that there is often not a nearby school that has met the goal. Moreover, after getting NCLB legislatively approved, the administration of George W. Bush proceeded to underfund it to the point that there were not sufficient resources to carry out all the provisions of the legislation.

Diane Ravitch, who writes extensively on education issues, has a harsh view of NCLB. She says it has encourged cheating and gaming the system — as later manifestated in the Atlanta, Georgia cheating scandal. Ravitch also charges that many schools suspend instruction before the state tests are given. In mathematics, she claims, the rate of improvement was greater before NCLB was passed.

President Obama has not tried to end NCLB but he has proposed major changes in a reauthorization proposal introduced in March 2011. Among the changes Obama has proposed are: 1) to eliminate the provision by which students in failing schools can transfer to nearby schools which are meeting AYP goals; 2) to give states more authority to set standards; 3) to expand measurement of educational progress beyond just reading and math proficiency; 4) to strenghten teacher evaluation tools; and 5) to add $3 billion to fund new initiatives. Included within the new education structure would be Obama’s pet project: Race to the Top. 

Race to the Top doesn’t give financially struggling schools any money unless they remove caps on the number of charter schools; require teachers’ unions to allow the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; and adopt the new national teaching standards. Race to the Top actually helps a small minority of schools that can qualify.

The Obama proposal to change NCLB has some good features, but contains a fundamental flaw: it doesn’t end high-stakes testing. Besides the negative consequences of high-stakes testing already explored, putting so much emphasis on testing elevates a subset of skills over broadening the educational development of the child; also, it channels teachers to teach to the test, because their very careers may be jeopardized by poor test results of their students.

President Obama is a great fan of charter schools. The proposed FY 2011 Department of Education budget had $490 million in it to promote school choice, the vast majority of which would go to charter schools. It wasn’t that long ago that charter schools were thought to be the educational wave of the future but the shine is off the apple. A September 2010 report described charter schools as floundering in Ohio, Arizona and California. A University of Chicago study found that, in general, charter schools did not bring about the improvements they were created to bring. The schools also did poorly in addressing the non-academic needs of the children. A Stanford University study found that only 17 percent of charter schools matched or outperformed matched traditional public schools.

As for integration, charter schools are generally far more segregated by race than are traditional public schools. The Civil Rights Project released a study in January 2010, which fould that black students are enrolled in charter schools that are 90 to 100 percent nonwhite.

Looking at this matter from a Democratic Party perspective, President Obama’s fascination with charter schools is bad news related to his position as party leader, because only about five percent of charter schools employ unionized teachers. This five percent would be even lower if it were not for the fact that many of the charter schools in Los Angeles are owned by a company that employs unionized teachers.

Unionized teachers are a major voting block for the Democratic Party and President Obama has diminished this level of support with his championship of charter schools and his tying of teacher evaluations to student test scores. A number of studies have confirmed that the major determinent of student achievement is the family socioeconomic situation and its level of support for education. Teachers whose students come mainly from homes that place a low value on education, face a big hurdle in elevating student test scores.

What, Then, Should Be Done To Improve Public Education?

The highest priority should be to terminate No Child Left Behind, as an educational program so centrally focused on high-stakes testing takes time and resources away from the broader educational perspective students need to  get.

Governmental resources should be devoted to improving traditional public schools, as charter schools take away money and other resources. Compared to traditional public schools, charter schools have less public accountability; tend to be more segregated; and also are more subject to fraud, due to involvement of companies operated for profit.

Attempts to take away collective bargaining rights from teachers at the state and local level and reduce the number and prestige of public school teachers must be vigorously combated at all levels of government. Concomitant with this fight, attempts to break teacher’s unions through promotion of vouchers, right-to-work laws and disinformation about teachers’ salaries and pensions must be exposed and opposed.

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