WASHINGTON — As head of one of the largest teachers unions in the country, Randi Weingarten had high hopes for the No Child Left Behind Act when Congress passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support 10 years ago.
Where the law went wrong, Weingarten said, was in failing to provide enough money and resources to back up its new requirements. But it continued education reforms begun under President Lyndon Johnson to help low-income schools, students with special needs and kids in poverty, she said.
"Before everyone throws the baby out with the bathwater, what No Child Left Behind was attempting to do was to shine the spotlight on kids who had traditionally been left behind," said Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"These are all good values and these are all things that need to continue."
But a decade after its passage, most educators and politicians agree that No Child Left Behind — President George W. Bush's signature education policy — isn't working. Every year, schools are expected to meet progress goals to ensure that all students are proficient in math and reading by 2014. But President Barack Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, predicted that 82 percent of public schools could be labeled as failing this year.
That's led many critics to argue that the law's benchmarks are unrealistic.
"I think that given the overall damage that the law has done ... it has been a terribly destructive piece of legislation," said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It has led to a mislabeling of the majority of our schools as failing schools."
Ravitch said that the emphasis on testing for the annual goals, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, has been detrimental for schools. By focusing testing on math and reading, curriculums across the country have narrowed, cutting out the arts and civics, she argued — leading to more focus on simply preparing students for the final exam.
"The most important thing that people don't understand is that test scores (are) not the same thing as quality education, and it's not even a good stand-in for quality education," Ravitch said.
According to the Department of Education, 33 percent of all schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals in the 2008-2009 school year, and 18 percent were identified as needing improvement.
Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, said that the annual goals were based on arbitrary benchmarks.
"It would be akin to saying that everyone in a marathon has to run a specific time, regardless of your ability and regardless of whether you show up that day with a broken leg," Harris-Aikens said.
"The statute didn't take into account at all whether teachers in schools helped students jump light years ahead of where they were when they entered the classroom at the beginning of the year," she said. "It only took into account whether the student met the benchmark that the state had set."
In recent years the pressure associated with yearly testing goals has led to cheating scandals across the country. Teachers in Atlanta have recently been on the hot seat over changing students' answers to improve results in state curriculum tests that were unrelated to No Child Left Behind.
"The pressure to meet these goals has caused a number of very negative consequences," Ravitch said. "No one should cheat, it's a terrible thing to cheat, but when you create a culture and a system in which people are told 'You'll be fired if you don't get higher scores,' that's what some people do and it's terrible."
Weingarten said that there should be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to cheating, but added: "Let me just say in terms of Atlanta, the vast majority of teachers in Atlanta did not engage in that behavior ... regardless of the pressure."
With a new school year under way and no comprehensive bill addressing No Child Left Behind close to approval, the Obama administration announced in August that it was moving forward with its own plan to reform the law. Duncan said he would waive the proficiency requirements for states that are working to improve their schools and have adopted their own testing and accountability programs.
Educators share the administration's impatience, but some worry that waivers are not the way to go.
"I think what is clear is that schools and districts and states quite frankly are going to have a tough time budgeting for the next few years, so it's unclear what kind of additional money schools and districts will have to spend on any additional reform," Harris-Aikens said.
Another part of the administration's proposal would provide competitive grants to help states strengthen science, technology, engineering and math programs, or STEM. This will give support to needy districts in implementing high-quality instruction in at least math or science, and possibly also technology or engineering.
Claus von Zastrow, director of research for Change the Equation, a nonprofit initiative started by the Obama administration in 2010 to improve STEM education, noted that while No Child Left Behind was intended to get students in every state at the "proficient" level in math, science and other subjects, it did not get states to set the same definition of proficiency.
"In states that have set the bar low, the scores are meaningless," he said.
Ravitch cautioned that test score gains are not even necessarily a sign of improvement. Instead, they often just mean that students have been taught test-taking strategies.
"We see many districts where scores went up, and then kids needed remediation when they went to apply to even a community college," she said. "They didn't learn math. They didn't learn reading. They learned test-taking skills."
For Ravitch, the path forward may still involve testing but in a different way. She said that instead of punishing schools for poor performance with sanctions, testing should be used to identify those that need additional support.
"I think what Arne Duncan should be doing is saying, 'I'm going to suspend the sanctions,' because the sanctions are leading to the misidentification and closing of many schools," Ravitch said. "What he's doing instead is rewriting the law and saying 'I'll give you a waiver if you do what I want you to do.' What he wants them to do isn't any better."
Harris-Aiken remains hopeful that Congress will reauthorize the law but with some changes.
"I think without any relief whatsoever, you will continue to see schools try and jump through the hoops" to reach the annual progress goals, Harris-Aikens said. "We will continue to see narrowing of the curriculum at schools, particularly with students who are struggling. So we really do want to see reauthorization happen sooner rather than later, and we haven't given up hope that it can happen."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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