Monday, November 22, 2004

The challenge ahead

From the Christian Science Monitor:

As the latest report cards on schools and districts trickle out, they're giving the public a snapshot not only of the nation's education system but also of the successes and failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's landmark 2001 education law. So far this year, the results have been better than many critics expected: Student achievement is up, and the lists of schools on state watch lists because of poor academic performance are getting shorter in nearly every state.

None of this means the nation's public schools have suddenly become Harvards without the ivy. Some analysts, in fact, warn that the trend may be deceptive: The shorter watch lists, for instance, may have more to do with bureaucratic changes than academic gains. And next year, the target achievement levels students need to reach under NCLB will jump in many states.


I'm one of those analysts. The second warning -- that next year achievement levels rise -- is particularly important. We are beginning to hear, and we will hear with increasing volume and intensity over the summer, what a tremendous success NCLB is. We will hear that thousands of schools showed tremendous improvement. But we can't forget that that will only be so because NCLB only requires that schools pass only 16% of their students in each grade, in each subgroup, in math and reading only. 16%! Next year, it rises to nearly 27%, which will cause many more schools to fail. In two years, science tests will be added; since no one has seen the science tests, the failure rates will be high. And by 2014, the passing rate must be 100% in math, science, and reading, in all grades, in all 21 subgroups, to avoid the label of "needing improvement," -- or to avoid, in plain English, failing.

Don't believe the hype. "There are three types of lies," said Mark Twain, "lies, damn lies, and statistics." You can guess which category these assertions of NCLB success fall under.

Schools are improving only because the bar has been set low and the tests have been repeated for two years now. Familiarity breeds not only contempt, but results. (In fairness, some states do set standards higher than mandated by NCLB. But some have lowered their standards to make sure they don't fail.)

At this point, claims of victory and achievement by NCLB proponents ring very hollow.

The CSM article is an excellent -- and balanced -- one. It starts and finishes with the hopeful news of improved test scores and the decline of failing schools, but it also lists a panoply of problems with the controversial legislation. For example:

Boston, Chicago, and several other urban school districts were caught off-guard by another component of NCLB. For the first time this year, the law placed entire districts, not just schools, on the watch list. Besides, the federal government said any district that made the watch list had to hire private tutors, not rely on their own, to improve performance.

Chicago has said the prohibition means far fewer children will get help. The superintendent vows to keep supplying their own tutors. Boston - which was placed on the watch list because it missed its attendance goal by 0.2 percent - is also considering defying Washington.

Moreover, Jack Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy, notes that a few school districts have landed on the watch list - even though they don't have a single failing school.

California has been particularly critical of NCLB. The state has its own accountability system, a model that tracks student achievement over time instead of school performance. California, along with 16 other states, has asked to use this system in place of NCLB. More than 300 schools showing significant improvement under its model have been labeled failing under NCLB, according to State Superintendent Jack O'Connell. "What concerns me is that those schools are going to have to change programs they know are working," he says.

The state has estimated that 67 percent of its schools would fail to meet federally mandated targets next year. "What kind of accountability system would you have when over half the schools are" failing? asks Mr. O'Connel. Like nearly all NCLB critics, he insists his complaints aren't with tough standards or the goals of the law - just the implementation. With our model, he says, "we always give schools a shot at
success."


NCLB needs to allow states like California to use alternative and proven accountability systems. They can't let them, however, fail minority communities. The challenge for the Department of Education and the House Education Committee is to balance flexibility and rigor. The degree to which the federal government can meet that central challenge will determine whether NCLB can achieve its laudable goals or if it will meet stiff resistance from schools, districts, and states that would cause its ultimate failure.
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