Room To Improve

It was expected to be one of the most contentious debates of the political year. President Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is due for reauthorization by the end of 2007. But as the calendar ticks into November, little has been heard since early summer, when U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller began circulating his proposed changes to the education law designed to combat the "soft bigotry of low expectations." The Democrat's proposal--which included allowing schools to measure how much students learn using methods other than the policy's signature standardized tests--was simultaneously criticized for potentially weakening the law and potentially making it more stringent. By both Democrats and Republicans.

Miller and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings say they are committed to getting the bill renewed this year. And even without a reauthorized version, the original NCLB law and its mandate that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 remain in effect. That means students, parents, and educators will grapple with its requirements for years to come.

The first five years of NCLB offer plenty of evidence of its reach and suggest five areas in which a revised law could offer improvements. Though the law is quick to divide schools into those that perform well and those that don't, there appear to be few consequences for the latter. Its regimen of standard tests seems particularly inappropriate for students who are learning English as a second language and the schools that enroll them. Teachers are worried that their income will be tied to how their students score on the tests. Schools have little incentive to teach gifted students to meet their potential. And the academic measurements for this federal law vary widely from state to state.

There are ways each of these concerns could be addressed. Whether the political will exists to make such changes happen is debatable.


No Child Left Behind, like the Wizard of Oz, has turned out to be more powerful in shadow than in substance. The law, which mandates that all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014, offers "few real sanctions or penalties, plenty of loopholes, and ample evidence that state and local officials are not taking [the law's] draconian actions and nothing bad is happening to them," says Chester Finn Jr., a former federal education assistant secretary and now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which researches school reform. Inadequate funding, local politics, and uncertainty over the effectiveness of federal remedies for failing schools have eroded much of the bite the law was intended to have. While the specter of federal intervention has been enough to propel the policy into action so far, many of its critics say that revisions to NCLB should offer genuine guidance and support instead of the threat of reforms that would be difficult or ineffective for the federal government to enforce. Or, as Finn says, "word is apt to get around that the NCLB 'wizard' is actually just a harmless little guy behind the curtain."

To be fair, most schools are not failing. But federal auditors recently found that the number of schools facing federal sanctions is growing. Nationwide, 4,509 schools serving more than 2 million children--or about 8 percent of all federally funded schools--have failed to bring enough students to grade level for four or more years straight, up from 2,790 schools in 2006. Most of these schools are in low-income, racial- and ethnic- minority districts in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Under the NCLB accountability system, schools in their fourth consecutive year of failure must take at least one "corrective action," such as adopting a new curriculum, replacing some staff, or extending the school year. After six years of failure, schools face restructuring. The options hee include handing control over to the state or to a private management company, bringing in an entirely new staff, and opening public charter schools in place of the failing schools.

According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report, none of these approaches were taken to fix about 40 percent of the 1,635 schools that have reported failure every year through 2005-2006. It suggests what some critics have said for some time: For the most part, state and local districts exploit loopholes in the federal law and employ other remedies, often without knowing how well those changes will work.

Education Secretary Spellings acknowledges that federal sanctions for failing schools may not be robust enough. "We need to know how we are going to address those chronic underperformers. We don't yet," she says. But so far, the threat alone has been enough to influence states to seek their own reforms.

Michigan, for example, has had success turning around some chronically underachieving schools without resorting to school takeovers or mass teacher firings. In Wyoming, Mich., schools that failed to make improvement for five years brought in "turnaround specialists" to work with struggling principals, offered more training to teachers, and made changes to the curriculum to focus more on reading. Tom Reeder, assistant superintendent of schools, says the district contemplated the tough measures prescribed by NCLB, but the state declined to take over failing schools. And because districts can make other major changes in lieu of handing a failing school over to the state, the federal government--which accounts for only nine cents of every dollar spent on education--doesn't crack down.

In the neighboring school district in Grand Rapids, Mich., where a quarter of all students have limited English skills and an additional 20 percent have learning disabilities, Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. worries about two schools now in their sixth year of failure. The district has been offering those students free after-school tutoring and the choice to move to the district's better-performing schools. But those two approaches, which are also required by the law, are not yielding good results quickly enough to show up in NCLB testing.

For now, the threat of federal sanctions has given some school leaders political cover to push meaningful reforms, says David Plank, an education policy analyst at the University of California-Berkeley. But if too many schools fail, educators will realize that the federal sanctions don't get enforced, and the motivation to raise student achievement could evaporate.


The fifth graders are learning division in small groups in the Fairfax County, Va., classroom, but Carolina, a girl from El Salvador who speaks broken English, is having a bit of a hard time. She has figured out that 162 divided by 12 equals 13 with a remainder of 6, but she can't come up with a story to write that shows she understands the problem. "No entiendo," she whispers to her friends. I don't understand.

Like hundreds of schools across the country, Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences is struggling to reach the federal requirements for reading and math proficiency among students who are learning English as a second language. Last year, not enough of these students passed the state's standardized tests, and as a result, the school overall was deemed in need of improvement. Teachers and district administrators say that "one size fits all" tests are unfair to students who can barely speak English or who have serious learning disabilities. They say schools should have the flexibility to decide which tools better measure how much these students are learning. And, if the NCLB law is changed, revising the requirements for these students--substituting learning portfolios for test scores, for example--could benefit the overall student body.

The 5million ESL students make up about 10 percent of all students in the nation. Most of them are in border states in the Southwest, but the fastest growth recently has been in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. In Fairfax County, Va., the schools serve 21,000 students who speak more than 140 languages. For years, these students were able to take a different reading test from native speakers. Then last year, Virginia schools agreed to give all students the same test after federal auditors threatened to withhold millions of dollars.

Despite last year's disappointing scores, Bailey's teachers are optimistic. Beginning this year, Virginia schools can use work portfolios, instead of a reading test, to determine if struggling English learners are meeting federal academic goals. District officials launched the program with 169 students last year, and 97 percent passed. Teachers say work portfolios account for students' mastery of the same standards in more creative ways. "It shows the whole child," says Betsy Walter, a fifth-grade teacher.


In 2005, Denver voters agreed to pay $25 million each year for a program that would directly link what public school teachers earned to what the 73,000 students in the district learned. The Pro-Comp plan offered bonuses to teachers who raised student achievement on standardized tests, chose to work in the neediest schools, and received good evaluations.

Lori Nazareno was one of the teachers who jumped at the opportunity. She had been a teacher in Miami for 19 years. But in Florida, Nazareno had reached a ceiling on the district's pay scale, which like many school districts in the country is based solely on years of experience and professional degrees. The veteran teacher had been looking to be closer to family in Colorado, and a $3,000 bonus she stood to gain in Denver was the deal clincher.

A reauthorized version of the NCLB could pave the way for more districts to reward the best teachers with such bonuses, though any such effort faces staunch challenges from teacher unions. Miller, the House panel chairman, has led the push for districts to experiment with performance-pay plans as a way to recruit talented teachers to districts that serve low-income neighborhoods. His NCLB proposal would give as much as $12,500 a year to the most outstanding teachers.

But Reginald Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million teachers, says the federal focus should instead be on raising teacher salaries and improving working conditions in challenging schools. Craig Richards, a professor of education in the Teachers College at Columbia University, agrees. "It's not that a performance-pay plan couldn't work," he says. "It's that no one has come up with a thoughtful way to do it."

In Florida, a legislative plan called Special Teachers Are Rewarded collapsed early this year after educators and their unions called the plan arbitrary, unfair, and divisive. The STAR program would have given bonuses only to the top 25 percent of teachers in the state, and it was based largely on student test scores. It disadvantaged librarians, art and music teachers, and others whose students were not tested.

Carla Sparks, a nationally certified teacher in Tampa who didn't get a $2,000 bonus under the state's latest merit pay program last year, says it's unfair to rate a teacher mostly on student test scores. "If you're evaluating teachers and students on one day of testing, you don't get a true picture," she says. "We have some veteran teachers with outstanding evaluations who have done some remarkable things for education who did not get a bonus, and they are feeling like a failure."


In fifth grade, Brielle Tucker was so good with numbers that her teacher put her and four other classmates in a group called the math rock stars. But soon, the novelty wore off. "Here's the texbook," Brielle, now 14, remembers her teacher at a Washington, D.C., elementary school telling her. "If you need help, you can consult the back of the book or you can ask me, but I really need to help the other students catch up."

Brielle's experience exposes a cruel irony of NCLB policy: High-achieving kids who easily can pass the standardized test requirements are often overlooked as schools focus on raising the scores of those students in the middle of the curve. "These [gifted] kids don't really count for anything in the federal accountability system," says Ann Sheldon, executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children. Adding requirements to the NCLB law to monitor the progress of gifted students would give schools motivation, but such revisions would strengthen NCLB when the political momentum seems to be pushing the opposite way.

"Our federal commitment is about those disadvantaged kids, and by damn, we're not doing right by them," Secretary Spellings says. "We don't have $12 billion for a gifted-and-talented program at the federal level. But that doesn't mean it's not an important priority for state and local districts." Yet states appear to be following the federal mandates, effectively focusing on those students below the proficiency levels. In districts in Ohio, for example, budgets for gifted education either have been slashed or have remained flat since the implementation of NCLB, leading some schools to dismantle their accelerated-learning programs and move those instructors into the neediest classrooms. Some states are starting to focus on high-achieving students. Minnesota increased spending for gifted education after reports that the state's brightest students were falling behind. In Kentucky, lawmakers approved funding to open a public high school on the Western Kentucky University campus to act as a pipeline for future scientists and engineers.

Representative Miller has proposed giving schools credit for improving the performance of "proficient students," the category gifted students fall into, as a way to lessen the focus on students on the bubble. NCLB's brief history already shows that if you track the student group, it will get the teachers' attention. That could apply to smart kids, too.


It has been described as "the race to the bottom." Many NCLB critics contend that faced with mounting pressure to meet federal performance targets, some states have watered down their standards. The evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the debate flares up every year when state and national test results show contrasting views of progress. In one well-publicized case, Mississippi standardized tests showed 80 percent of its fourth graders scoring proficient or better in reading, but fewer than 30 percent of its students were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a state or two that have raised their standards" since No Child Left Behind went into effect, says Michael Cohen, a Clinton administration education adviser. "Standards are literally all over the map."

A recent poll from the Educational Testing Service shows that 6 in 10 Americans say a single set of national standards should replace the mishmash of NCLB state standards. But this seemingly easy fix has its pitfalls. For example, agreeing on a science or history curriculum would be tough. "The culture wars would explode," says Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the Washington-based Education Trust.

Spellings supports giving states financial incentives to raise standards, but she doesn't think the federal government should dictate what she calls "a one size fits all" curriculum. "For us to take x number of years to have a federal debate about intelligent design just seems like a real bad idea to me," she says.

But simply because the feds aren't poised to create national standards doesn't mean thatstates can't agree to do it themselves, says Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "Let states dream up uniform standards that they want to use," he says. And some states are.

Thirty states, including Minnesota, Texas, and New Jersey, have participated in a program run by Achieve, a nonpartisan education think tank, to raise their high school standards to match the needs of colleges and employers. Nine states, from Arkansas to Rhode Island, have created a common Algebra II test. Still, some education activists say the stringent requirements of NCLB may be keeping more states from cooperating. Says Wilkins, "NCLB is not encouraging states to raise their standards."

By Eddy Ramirez