School Beat: Son of NCLB

by Lisa Schiff on February 15, 2007

If you need a does of black humor, just pick any random piece of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This law is replete with outrageous expectations disingenuously posing as the simplest of matters. My favorite joke of the moment comes from the section that details the requirements for involving parents for schools receiving “Title I” funds designed to assist low-income kids.

This portion contains a whole host of must do items for schools to implement that sound great on paper but are completely divorced from reality. The best one is where schools are informed that in order to encourage more parent participation they should feel free to provide parents transportation to and from school events.

Yeah, this would be great and makes me ask: “Mr. President, to which address should I send the receipt for our school minibus, the insurance, the salary for the driver and the weekly gas bill? And along the way, would you mind padding the reimbursement with a little extra to cover a full-time librarian, a full-time nurse, teachers’ aides for each classroom, a full-time PE teacher, new sports equipment, instruments and art supplies, sufficient text books, and a refurbished building? Oh, and don’t forget to make sure our students have adequate housing and health care and that their parents are offered meaningful, well-paying jobs. Thanks!”

The heavy sarcasm indicates how many parents, students and educators feel about NCLB and the possibilities for its rehabilitation in the upcoming reauthorization. Democrats are now in charge, so there may be some hope, but we can’t forget that Democrats were willing and equal partners in this fiasco, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that they know anything more about public education today than they did five years ago. Seriously, how many of these folks enrolled their children in public school over the recent years?

In fact, it seems that the reauthorization timeline may be bringing out all the sharks. Just this week the Commission on No Child Left Behind, co-chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Governor Roy E. Barnes of Georgia, supported by the Aspen Report, released a length report for the reauthorization of NCLB (http://tinyurl.com/353fgu). The report enumerates 75 recommendations, the bulk of which, based on a relatively cursory reading at this point, are more punitive and myopic than the original legislation.

For instance, one of the recommendations concerns enrollment. In order to more completely pretend that shifting students around from school to school is an answer to anything, this report recommends multiple enrollment periods throughout the year, in order to ensure that students in schools considered failing have other options to choose from. So the total set of schools does not change, but potentially several times within the school year, kids will be reshuffled.
The disruption to the kids, the schools, the implementation and administrative costs and the complete lack of focus on the underlying problems bring us once more into the realm of the unbelievable. Most of the 75 recommendations are similarly outrageous.

An exception is the acknowledgement of the Reading First scandal, in which Department of Education staffers was actually forcing the use of certain commercial materials for their own private gain. The Commission recommends that the DOE not be allowed to participate in such choices. So, now we have to have specific recommendations to prohibit tried and true forms of corruption.

Most of the recommendations are focused on more ways to measure and dissect the performance of students, teachers, principals, and administrators. Many of the recommendations include requirements for schools to set aside even more funds from already low budgets to meet expanded programs. Noticeably, and not surprisingly, there is no mention of evaluating the actual cost of implementing these programs and authorizing funds to match, nor is there any mention of complementary efforts to address the confounding social problems of lack of housing, health care, jobs and more.

In other words, this Commission hopes to make NCLB even more punitive, filled with more impossible goals, and even more divorced from reality. The message is clear. Public education is still in jeopardy under the current administration.

Supporters of the bill, such as the Commission that issued this latest report, insist that while there are flaws that need to be addressed, NCLB has accomplished a lot and has goals we can all agree on. Some even go so far as to say it would be fine if only it had sufficient funding. Especially important, we are told, is that fact that we now know just how badly minority, low-income, and English Language Learning students are doing.

Let’s take this myth, the strongest part of NCLB perhaps, apart. Yes, we can use percentages to describe how African-American, Latino and low-income students are in general not being served well by our educational system, but we’ve known this for a long time, even without floating decimal points in the percentages. Because we live in a society still riddled with institutionalized racism and designed to promote individual wealth accumulation, for any public service, for any social institution, people of color and those on the lower-end of the income scale will get less more of the time, if not all of the time.

NCLB lets us describe this with a lot of methodologically unsound numbers. So what? These faulty statistics do nothing to create a shift in prioritizing education, in developing new teaching strategies, or more radically in taking seriously calls to eliminate poverty.

What these numbers do instead is make us feel as though something has been accomplished. That by assigning a percentile to groups of students in schools, in districts, across states and across the numbers, and then by publishing those numbers in newspapers all over the country as though they were so many scarlet letters that we have taken a step to make sure that all children are moving forward. So at the end of the school year, what we’re left with are more numbers, and more thrashing because of those numbers, as opposed to anything approximating new solutions to identified problems.

That’s the current state of things. The question on the table now is how much room reauthorization provides for major changes to federal education legislation. The first point to address is probably the “full funding” issue, frequently mentioned by NCLB supporters such as Kennedy. Our first question should be “As defined by whom?” Money is great, but does anyone really trust these folks to come through on it? Why not prove that Washington can make good on its promises by provided the federal dollars states are already owed in order to provide truly adequate special education services (IDEA funding). These dollars could flow without requiring new legislation and would make a dramatic improvement for all students, whether or not they are covered by IDEA, as right now, general funds are being used to make up the bare minimum of special education requirements.

Another idea that’s being discussed, and is mentioned in the Commission’s report, is to change the way progress is measured. As many critics have pointed out, schools are punished if students don’t meet target test goals, even if the students in question have significantly improved from where they started. The proposed change is to track this progress, but to still hold schools accountable for students achieving the end target. This would be a welcome change, but it’s hard to know if it’s sufficient. Will states once again simply water-down their standards so that they are easier to meet or slyly push kids out of schools who are dramatically underperforming as we now know they did in Texas to achieve their false “miracle?”

A counter to this above point has been floated around—creating federal minimum standards that all states must meet, in order to circumvent the widely varying levels of rigor we now have patchworked across the country. This seems like a promising idea, but there is little in our experience that would lead us to trust our lawmakers to devise useful standards, any more than they were able to craft good education legislation.

In fact, we should perhaps worry more, as the lack of well-trained specialists serving in government is at an all-time low. In other words, is there anyone around D.C. who knows enough to write such standards? Obviously not, because what is not on the table, at least yet, is the ridiculous 2014 deadline at which time all children in the US are supposed to be working at grade level or the narrow-minded focus on standardized testing and standardized learning.

Two possible responses are now available to those of us who want changes. The first is a reform approach, championed by the Forum on Education Accounatibility, a wide ranging coalition of organizations representing children, educators, civil rights and more have bee pushing for meaningful change to the legislation. The proposed changes can be read at http://www.edaccountability.org/about/statement.php and provide an excellent starting point for law-makers, including the head of the Department of Education, Margaret Spelling, to start in examining how to make good legislation.

The second option is what many of us really want in our heart of hearts—a full repeal. The Education Roundtable, a seemingly much smaller group has a solid, hard-hitting critique available regarding why this legislation must be wiped out, not just modified. A petition trying to advance this goal is available for all to sign: http://www.educatorroundtable.org/petition.html

Each of these groups has excellent points for us to use in our efforts to influence decision makers as we are able. Whether reform or repeal, serious changes are in order and not in the direction the administration is going. The exact timeline for reauthorization is not known yet, and may in fact not come up until after the next elections, given its third-rail nature. But even so, undoing this law and refashioning it into something else will take time, so we had better get those letters going now.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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