Saturday, June 04, 2005

Suggested Modification to No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was established in 2002. This is the national education reform package the Bush administration and Congress passed early in Bush’s first term, and was sold as a new, far reaching, and near revolutionary approach to education. My first comment needs to be that there really aren’t many new ideas in NCLB. It is based on the need to see consistent improvements in state standardized test scores, places an emphasis on math, reading and writing, and has accountability of schools (including watch lists and lists of failing schools) built into it. There are consequences for schools that don’t improve fast enough, such as giving parents and students options to go to other non-failing schools and taking money away from poorly performing schools. It also requires tutoring and other extracurricular options for students at failing schools and mandates that ‘highly qualified teachers’ are necessary in all classrooms.

Of all that, there really isn’t any new, visionary, or revolutionary approach to fixing many of the nation’s public schools. Most, if not all, states had some sort of state testing system in place well before Bush first took office. I teach in an Illinois public high school and used to teach in the Chicago Public Schools, and there have been state standards, state testing, and watch lists for years. In Chicago, early in the Clinton administration, the public school system (once called the nation’s worst by Bill Bennett) became the national model for large systems by ridding itself of social promotion, requiring improvement in reading scores at all levels of schooling, placing schools on probation, instituting local control for all schools, taking over the worst schools and replacing ineffective principals and staff. Chicago has always allowed students to attend any high school in the city, depending on waiting lists and enrollments after neighborhood kids had first dibs. Much of this sounds like NCLB, which Bush of course takes credit for. Having said that, I do think there is some good in NCLB. Perhaps the best aspect of the NCLB law is that it requires schools to look at data for all demographic groups of the population rather than just overall averages. While many schools already have been doing this, not all were looking at breakdowns specifically between White students and minority students, male and female, low income students, and students with disabilities or in special education programs. This is valuable, and at many schools with diverse populations, the minority student achievement gaps that have gained national attention truly begin to stand out. NCLB continues to emphasize mathematics, reading and writing, which are the essential skills necessary for learning in all other subjects, and soon science will be added to the list. This is all very good and necessary for schools to address and fix.

I, and the overwhelming number of colleagues and educators I know, do have a number of issues with NCLB, however. While testing is absolutely a necessary piece of the assessment process, one problem is that NCLB uses standardized tests as the sole assessment for students and schools. Testing gives a single snapshot at a single time, and any educator knows that a single test is not at all indicative of how much a student knows. Just think about tests you have taken during your school years, and afterward wanted to kick yourself for making silly mistakes, running out of time even though you knew the rest of the problems, taking the exam while being ill, or not getting enough sleep the night before. What’s worse, the scores used in NCLB for evaluating each year in school are not used in a longitudinal manner. In other words, the kids in 5th grade being tested this year to assess the 5th grade move on to the 6th grade next year. Next year’s scores to see if there was improvement for the 5th grade will come from next year’s 5th graders, a completely different and independent set of kids. Comparing this year’s 5th grade scores with next year’s does not necessarily measure what you want to see, which is the academic improvement for a given child.

The other problem I and many others have is that an arbitrary cutoff of 40% was used last year to assess schools. What do I mean by this? In a high school, for instance, juniors take a state exam that tests them on state standards for reading, math, and science. The results of those tests are the broken down in terms of the percentage of students who meet or exceed standards and those who do not meet the standards. Last year, for a school to be deemed a ‘passing’ school, 40% of students needed to meet or exceed standards. Each sub-group of students need to meet this percentage, rather than the overall school average. Each successive year needs to increase that percentage by 5%, and ultimately 100% need to meet or exceed standards. The arbitrary 40% will put numerous schools on ‘failing’ lists even though they may make remarkable progress from one year to the next, especially inner-city schools and schools with large immigrant populations. Such schools may start off with 10% - 20% of students meeting reading standards. These schools tend to have all the major problems ranging from large-scale poverty, gangs and drugs, lack of resources and qualified teachers, and large percentages of students where English is their second language.

Let’s say a school starting off at 10% of students meeting reading standards makes a major school-wide push and doubles their scores to 20% meeting or exceeding standards. This is not easy and requires a school-wide focus on reading, as I can personally account for when I taught at a city school where 95% of students were from low income families and 75% had English as a second language and we made such gains. Well, so much for the effort because that school will be put on a failing list. Even if the next year saw an additional 10% increase, it would still be far below the increasing cutoff percentage, and this ‘school on the rise doing remarkable work’ will continue to be a ‘failing’ school and will eventually begin to lose money even though mandated reforms will require more money. Most of these schools are already in the red, by the way. Parents will be given the option for their children to attend a nearby school, if that other school is willing to take in more students, but guess what? Chances are other city schools are also failing and overcrowded, and cannot handle more students. Nearby private schools tend to not take in more students, either. What I would like to see is for a school to be assessed on the current baseline scores, and then require yearly improvements from that baseline. Why should schools making very good progress under very difficult circumstances be punished? This would be a common sense and more fair method for assessing schools under the current structure of the law.

Hopefully, by suggesting this, the administration will not refer to me as a ‘terrorist’ since I disagree with how their reforms are being implemented (although I am, accordng to former Ed. secretary Paige, a member of a 'terrorist organization,' the NEA).

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