No Child Left Behind: more harm than good?
September 29 was a bad day for Richard Middleton, superintendent of the North East Independent School District. And for the principals, teachers and students in the 25 local schools sanctioned by the federal government for failing to meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act. This is the first year sanctions have gone into effect.
Passed by Congress in January 2002, No Child Left Behind has been heralded by the Bush administration as a hallmark in education reform. Most schools agree that educators should be held accountable for student performance and improvement, particularly with minority and economically disadvantaged children, who historically have not received a solid education. However, NCLB contains serious imperfections: shifting criteria used to evaluate schools, harsh penalties for schools whose special education programs don't perform well, and unstable funding to carry out the law's requirements.
Despite Education Secretary Rod Paige's contention that "the law is working," there are more subtle, but no less damaging, ramifications of NCLB, which some educators say could pave the way for the privatization of public education.
Under NCLB, the Education Department evaluates schools primarily on the percentage of children who take performance tests such as the TAKS (the attendance requirement is 95 percent), the percentage of children who pass it at grade level or above, and, if applicable, the graduation rate. These criteria also cover "subpopulations," including minority, economically disadvantaged, and special education students, who also must pass the tests at grade level. NCLB's goal is to have all children working proficiently at grade level by 2013-14. Every school must show yearly academic progress toward that goal.
Yet there are inherent problems in requiring 99 percent of special education students to perform at grade level `See "All things must pass," September 9-15, 2004`, and in penalizing schools, like Krueger Middle School in North East ISD, for failing to meet that goal. By the nature of the students' disabilities, they cannot work at grade level; if they could, the students would not be placed in special education. Meanwhile, the entire school is sanctioned for the shortcomings of its most vulnerable students. Some schools may never get off the sanction list because they cater - even including the building design - to the severely handicapped.
"We have had go-rounds with the Department of Education on this issue," says Suzanne Marchman, TEA spokeswoman. "We evaluate special education on an individual basis, not a cookie-cutter response."
Moreover, under state pressure, the Education Department has changed or relaxed the law over the past two years, making it difficult to accurately gauge school performance. In the round of sanctions based on the 2003-04 academic year, schools were judged on criteria that changed in July.
Complicating matters, the Texas Education Agency has its own criteria for evaluating schools. Although similarities exist between state and federal measures, the TEA, for example, makes concessions for special education programs and also judges schools more broadly on growth, rather than a magic percentage set by NCLB.
Thus, schools that the TEA ranked Academically Acceptable may still receive federal sanctions, a contradiction that confuses parents.
"You end up with a state system that says a school is terrific and the feds say it's not," says Patty Sullivan, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "People don't know if schools are getting better or worse."
"It's difficult for the average parent to discern what this means," says Craig Tonget, executive director of the Texas PTA, adding that parents wanted the information released before the school year started.
"It's so hard to digest this information."
The ramifications of NCLB
In a speech to the National Press Club last month, Education Secretary Rod Paige said that before the law, "this nation confronted a de facto apartheid in our schools. Millions were mired in mediocrity and denied a quality education. We all know who these children were: the poor, minorities, children with special needs."
NCLB was supposed to help these students by allowing those at low-performing schools to transfer to better-performing ones; low-income and minority students receive transfer priority. Yet, schools, already cash-strapped with shortfalls in state funding, must use 20 percent of their federal Title I money to transport the students. Grants are available to supplement the cost, Middleton says, but they are "an inconsistent source of funds."
Problems arise if there is no room at other district schools. At North East ISD, most schools are already overcrowded and may not be able to accommodate extra students. Students from small districts with only one high school may not have another school to attend. In that case, schools can set up agreements with neighboring districts for student transfers. Yet, no district can be forced to accept students from outside its boundaries.
Middleton says these transfers, while often infeasible because of space issues, can "move the problem around," effectively creating educational refugees. "You could have a class of wanderers in urban areas. I don't sense the benefit. You take a school apart and destroy its neighborhood."
Tonget says he doesn't believe many parents will transfer children out of federally sanctioned schools. He encourages parents to meet with the principal and find out why the school is on the list and how it plans to remedy the shortcomings. "By and large, parents think their kids' schools are doing pretty well," he explains. "These `sanctions` can be driven by factors that may or may not affect your kids' education."
The funding fuss
The federal funding picture, as Middleton describes it, is "unclear." The Bush administration maintains that the law has been fully funded, adding that throwing money at schools doesn't guarantee students will receive a good education. Critics charge that NCLB amounts to an unfunded mandate: Too little money has been allocated to improve schools' performance, while other educational grants, including $20 million for literacy programs for juveniles in jail, have been zeroed out.
Yet, the minority staff of the Senate Labor Appropriations Subcommittee analyzed Bush's Fiscal Year 2005 education budget, and concluded that total discretionary spending would increase 3 percent to $57 billion, the smallest increase for education since 1996. Funding for NCLB programs would increase by 1.8 percent, to nearly $25 billion, leaving a $9.4 billion funding shortfall when compared to the authorized funding levels.
"It's difficult to say if there's a relationship between money and performance," says Marchman. "Schools can do well on limited resources with parental involvement. But you can argue both sides. All schools want more money."
Privatization on the horizon?
NCLB states that Stage 5 schools, those that have failed to meet AYP for at least four years, can be taken over by state agency or a private company. This provision, and the Bush administration's support for vouchers, has led critics to say that NCLB opens the door for privatization of public education.
"The severity of the penalties, its complexity, the way it was rolled out, the idea of bringing in private vendors, it all begins to move in that direction," says Middleton. "It's obvious it has to be on someone's radar screen."
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank that supports privatization, did not return several calls from the Current.
"I hate to say what the intentions of the act are," says Marchman, "but those comments have come up. We're talking about taking away local control completely."
The solution, public school proponents say, is not privatization, but further incentives and support for public education. They acknowledge that parts of NCLB are effective, in that some states previously didn't allow students to have identification numbers, which made it difficult to track individual performance. Other districts didn't separate scores for minority and Limited English Proficiency students, which impeded those students' progress.
"If I could wave my magic wand," says Patty Sullivan, "there are things within the law that the department should have gotten right. For example, if your first graders fail in reading and you get them proficient, but next year, the first-graders fail in math ... you have two different subjects and two different groups of kids, but you've failed two years in a row and you're sanctioned. The department could reinterpret those results. It also needs to recognize growth. States get frustrated when there's growth and they don't get credit for it."
Middleton says the feds need to straighten out the rules and procedures before sanctioning schools. "I urge the federal government to see education as an asset and not a liability." •
By Lisa Sorg