School Beat: Four Years of No Child Left Behind

by Lisa Schiff on March 30, 2006

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education legislation which is the main driving force behind the annual standardized testing exercise our children will soon undergo, has just received its fourth year report card by the Center on Education Policy (CEP).

The CEP has undertaken to provide a yearly analysis of the implementation and effects of NCLB through 2008, employing surveys of education officials in all states, surveys of a sampling of school districts, and case studies of a diverse selection of districts and schools.

On Tuesday, the CEP released this year’s study, a report entitled From the Capital to the Classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act. The report covers a spectrum of issues, from teacher quality to achievement to “broad effects.” Much of what is in this report is unsurprising, but still good to confirm:

? The breadth of subjects being taught in schools is being significantly reduced, due to the pressure to achieve increasingly high levels of test scores in reading and writing.

? States identify aligning curriculum with tests as a major factoring in improving test scores. However, performance on national tests has not mirrored the achievements states are reporting with their own tests.

? The practices of educators in school districts are becoming more and more organized around the imperatives of NCLB, such as the use of standardized tests for assessment; how data from these tests are analyzed, particularly in terms of breaking down student populations into sub-groups based on socio-economic factors; how and when the tests are conducted; the course material that is used; and which teaching methods are employed.

? Urban districts are feeling the punitive effects of NCLB more severely than other districts. This is due to the fact that diversity in urban districts, and thus in urban schools, generates more student group test-targets that must be met in order for an entire school, and therefore an entire district to be considered successful.

? Differing levels of standards across states, unequal granting of requirement waivers across states, and varying lengths of time being covered under NCLB have created uneven experiences for schools across the nation. For instance, although the report states that nationally a small number of schools (about 600) are in the advanced punitive restructuring stages of NCLB, in California, about 400 are in some stage of restructuring.

? The national bi-partisan backlash against NCLB that involved such strong actions as states bringing lawsuits against the federal government over the legislation was dampened somewhat by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings relaxing some of the requirements for some states. But states are still reporting gross lack of federal financial support and a lack of capacity to support schools that are underachieving and are at risk of being sanctioned. Elected officials at all levels are trying to amend the legislation and some school districts are not accepting the federal monies that come with NCLB strings.

The CEP report is full of interesting analysis, including a case-study of neighboring Oakland Unified School District. The disappointing aspect of the report is in its recommendations, which are suggestions of ways to fix NCLB as opposed to a thorough critique of the policy, including the implicit educational premises woven through it. The data has been collected and the arguments are right there to make. While some of the recommendations are fine, such as the call to give states and districts more financial support to help struggling schools, overall these recommendations end up merely covering up the fundamentally flawed nature of this legislation.

No matter how much this legislation is nipped and tucked, NCLB is still a simplistic effort to narrowly reduce the educational activities and related assessments that occur in schools, call that success and be done with it. This is not really about increasing standards or achievement. It’s a weak attempt to take a short-cut to building strong schools that support the wide variety of needs, skills, and abilities children bring to the classroom. The simple fact that the impossible 2014 deadline for having 100% of all school-age children be proficient in math and reading is still in front of us is only one of the many ludicrous aspects of NCLB that reveal its destructive core.

One of the recommendations of the CEP that is heard so often is that we need to fully fund NCLB. This would be a horrible outcome, because it would make it that much harder to expose and question the basic philosophy of NCLB, that one size fits all and that the academic success of a state, a district, a school or a child can be summed up in a number.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (

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