WASHINGTON — Five years after President Bush's signature education program became law, No Child Left Behind is at a crossroads.
Proposals that could drastically alter how children in the nation's public schools are educated have stalled for months in the Senate and House of Representatives education committees. The wrangling over the law, which demands that every child be "proficient" — working at grade level in reading and math — by 2014, has grown so rancorous that Congress is unlikely to reauthorize or change the program this year. NCLB will renew automatically if Congress fails to act.
But as the 2008 political campaign intensifies, education changes are likely to be eclipsed by debates over the economy, health care and the Iraq war — and by more partisan political posturing.
There's bipartisan agreement, however, that No Child Left Behind is due for an overhaul.
"All across the country, teachers, school administrators, school board members and parents are voicing their concerns with the law," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "They don't think it makes sense to stay the course. They don't think it makes sense to preserve the status quo. They think the law needs significant improvements, and they are right. Unfortunately, the president couldn't see it more differently. He thinks the law is nearly perfect."
Critics charge that NCLB takes a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores different education standards, challenges and practices among the states:
- Education experts criticize states' differing proficiency standards. Even if a teacher in Wisconsin — which has a low proficiency standard, according to a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education organization — helps his eighth-grade reading students meet state targets, they still might lag behind their peers from a state such as South Carolina, which has a higher standard, on national tests.
- Roughly 40 percent of schools that should have faced sanctions, such as a state takeover, for repeatedly failing to help poor students reach proficiency targets through the 2005-2006 school year avoided the law's toughest consequences, according to a Government Accountability Office report this year.
- Detractors say the law's heavy reliance on standardized testing doesn't fully gauge student progress. However, proposals to use additional achievement measures, such as graduation rates and scores in subjects such as history, have met staunch resistance from those who worry about lowered standards.
- Nearly everyone involved thinks that more must be done to close the so-called achievement gaps among racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, students who speak limited English, poor children and their peers. But proposals to expand the use of portfolios of student work to help gauge the progress of mentally challenged children and to implement portfolio use for those who speak little English have met skepticism from those who worry about attempts to hide poor student performance. Experts worry that some schools also have figured out ways to sidestep counting groups of low-performing students, thereby boosting overall test scores.
- By all accounts, NCLB's biggest success is the way the law highlights the performance of underachieving children and holds schools and districts accountable for every student's progress. But while some states and districts have ramped up attendance in math and reading programs to help all children succeed, education advocates worry that these efforts come at the expense of gifted children who ace standardized tests.
- Many states and lawmakers think the federal government reneged on promises of funding to meet the law's requirements and vow not to support any measure that doesn't guarantee adequate funding. According to the U.S. census, the nation's school districts spend roughly $8,200 per student each year. But a study by The Education Trust, a nonprofit education advocacy group in Washington, D.C., found that on average the nation spends $900 less on students in poor districts than it does on students in more affluent districts.
- Teachers' unions are waging a high-profile battle against proposals to tie pay raises to improvement in students' test scores.
The debate over standardized testing in American education isn't new. However, NCLB's requirement that districts and states use those tests to measure student progress toward meeting federally mandated math and reading targets is revolutionary, said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings after the Nation's Report Card scores were released in September.
The scores, which provide the only national snapshot of how American students are faring, showed an uptick in fourth-grade math and reading scores and improvement in eighth-grade math performance.
Spellings quickly claimed the victory for NCLB.
"We're going in the right direction, and we don't need to let up now," she said.
Others say NCLB is off-course.
David Wasserman, a Madison, Wis., middle-school teacher, sat in the teachers' lounge in October in protest while colleagues gave his students the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, a test designed to gauge progress toward meeting NCLB goals. Wasserman helped proctor exams later that week after district officials threatened to fire him if he continued his protest.
But he refused to touch a single test booklet.
"I decided that I would not and could not, after all the years of struggling with this, I just couldn't be a part of it," said Wasserman, who disagrees with NCLB's heavy reliance on standardized testing and who believes that the law is underfunded. "I just morally and ethically could not participate in this another year."
When NCLB was drafted, educators weren't at the table. Instead, the law was a bipartisan, brokered accord between a newly elected president who'd pushed education changes as governor of Texas and education stalwarts in Congress, said Andrew Rudalevige, an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
But that accord was broken when, weeks after NCLB was signed into law, Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., another of the bill's original authors, had a public falling-out over funding for it. Since then, Kennedy, Miller, states, school districts, legislators and organizations such as the National Education Association all have complained bitterly that states should have received an additional $56 billion in federal funding.
The Bush administration and the Department of Education disagree and point to an increase in federal spending from $17.4 billion five years ago to a possible $24.5 billion in fiscal 2008.
But federal spending accounted for only 8.9 percent of the estimated $584 billion that the nation spent on elementary and secondary education last school year.
This time, Miller and Kennedy are demanding firmer promises of adequate funding. They also spent weeks listening to feedback from dozens of educators and policy experts before drafting legislation to change NCLB.
Still, the two veteran lawmakers and the Bush administration have faced blistering criticism and anger over the mandate.
More than 60 House Republicans have co-sponsored a measure by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would give states the right to opt out of NCLB. Many freshman members of Congress on both sides of the aisle promised during their campaigns to overhaul or get rid of the law.
Over the past few years, lawmakers in at least a dozen states, including Utah, Arizona, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia, have threatened to opt out of NCLB.
In the House draft of its NCLB reauthorization, revisions include changing how kids' math and reading test scores are counted; increasing the role of graduation rates and other measures of achievement in determining whether a school or district has made adequate yearly progress; eliminating funding gaps between rich and poor districts; giving children credit for making some progress even if they don't meet targets; and, possibly most controversially, tying students' test improvement to performance pay raises for teachers.
The Senate Education Committee's draft, portions of which were released last month, steered clear of thorny issues such as teacher pay and accountability, but addressed overhauling the nation's so-called "dropout factories," secondary schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent.
However, proposals to tie teachers' pay raises and competitive grants to improvements in their students' test scores are what galvanized teachers' unions to turn up the pressure on Washington lawmakers.
Supporters, including Miller, say the move will reward deserving teachers, push others to try harder and encourage educators to work in poorer districts, which traditionally have high teacher turnover.
The 3.2 million-member NEA and other teachers' groups say such measures are punitive, encourage "teaching to the test" and would add another hurdle for teachers in poor communities.
"You don't turn dull and mediocre teachers into classroom wizards by holding a sword of terror over their heads," said Jonathan Kozol, a veteran educator, activist and author. "If you want to provide merit pay based on a broader range of success, then it might have some effect in attracting good teachers into these schools."
NCLB AT A GLANCE
The No Child Left Behind Act is intended to ensure that all students, regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, language spoken at home or disability, attain proficiency in reading, math and science by 2014.
To do so, NCLB focuses on standards, testing, accountability measures and teacher quality. It requires states to set standards and develop assessments and annual measurable benchmarks, and requires districts and schools to implement them.
Under NCLB, states are required to:
- Develop rigorous state education standards that define what all students should know and be able to do at a specific age and grade level.
- Identify schools in need of improvement.
- Establish an accountability plan. The U.S. Department of Education approves each state's accountability measures.
Source: Center for Public Education
BEYOND THE LAW
With changes to NCLB stalled in Congress, some states have taken matters into their own hands. Others are pioneering ways to measure progress.
Many states have increased the number of early childhood education programs in the hope that today's toddlers will enter elementary school better prepared. In at least 12 Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi, the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs or Head Start, the federal preschool program, is greater than the number of 4-year-olds in poverty, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
At least 30 states have joined with Achieve Inc., a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that works to help states raise academic standards, in an effort to link proficiency standards, testing and other measures of student performance to what will be expected of children when they graduate from high school and enter college, the military or the workforce. The effort, dubbed the American Diploma Project, also has gained support among state and federal lawmakers for its focus on what U.S. students will need to know to compete globally.
Teacher and civil rights groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and some policy organizations, such as the bipartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind, strongly support "growth models," which gives children and schools credit for making some progress even if they fall short of state targets and deadlines. Several states, including Alaska, Florida and North Carolina, are participating in a federal growth model pilot program. The Department of Education hopes that, with further study, growth models will prove to be a good way to track student achievement over time.
ON THE WEB
Fordham Institute study on proficiency standards: www.edexcellence.net/doc/The(underscore)Proficiency(underscore)Illusion.pdf
GAO report on state compliance: www.gao.gov/new.items/d071035.pdf
Education Trust report on education spending: www2.edtrust.org/NR/rdonlyres/31D276EF-72E1-458A-8C71-E3D262A4C91E/0/FundingGap2005.pdf
Commission on No Child Left Behind report on growth models: www.aspeninstitute.org/atf/cf/%7BDEB6F227-659B-4EC8-8F84-8DF23CA704F5%7D/NCLB(underscore)Book.pdf