No Child Left Behind's wake-up call
Richard, First, let's be honest about what the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is and isn't. It's not a magic bullet that can fix all that is wrong with public education in this country; no single law can do that. But it also is not the source of inexcusable educational practices most notably, decisions to narrow the curriculum or teach to the test for which it is so frequently blamed.
What the law is, in fact, is the boldest step our nation has taken on issues of education and race since 1954's Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. NCLB powerfully uncouples academic expectations from skin color, socioeconomic status and geography. It allows each state to develop its own standards and tests but says plainly that the state will base school evaluations on whether all groups of children are being taught grade-level skills in reading and mathematics, and by qualified teachers no matter where in the state you live, your race or ethnicity, how much money your parents earn or the language spoken in your home. It's as simple as that.
It is hard, really, to understand why we spend so much time arguing about whether NCLB's goals are the right goals and so little time trying to meet them. Indeed, though student achievement is climbing, we have not seen a substantial narrowing of California's achievement gap over the last four years. At least now, though, we're talking about it more than ever.
NCLB's most profound effect thus far has been to provide the data that signal where problems exist. Before NCLB, we all had gut instincts about which schools were "good" and which ones weren't. Since the law's enactment, we now know that some of the schools we thought were "good" are not for some groups of students. It has also revealed that some of the "bad" schools are worse than we ever realized.
NCLB says that it is unacceptable to let students languish in underperforming schools year after year without help and without options. NCLB does not take money away from these schools or otherwise "punish" them, despite all the misinformation you may have heard on this point. Instead, the law says that if a school has a problem, then the school district and state have a problem too, because we can't expect struggling schools to turn around all on their own.
Though California assessed English-language learners and students with disabilities before NCLB, it did not hold schools accountable for their performance. Worse still, California's own state accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, set lower expectations for poor kids and kids of color, requiring them to make annual progress of only 80% of the school-wide goal. Imagine saying that it's OK for a school to expect 20% less academic growth from kids with a different skin color. NCLB helped change that: California has since improved the API because the federal law made the state confront these problems.
For the most part, NCLB has clarified the challenges we face as a state. And while it hasn't provided our schools with all of the resources they need, it has increased federal education funding in California by 50% since it was enacted. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone received more than $400 million under NCLB in 2007. The money is important, no doubt about it, and we need more. NCLB should be fully funded.
As Congress works on reauthorizing NCLB, there are several changes that could help make the law more effective:
- First, schools should be measured by their students' growth over time. We should remember, however, that California hasn't yet built the data systems it needs to do this, so the federal law could provide important incentives for California and other states to finally connect schools into the Information Age.
- Second, the law should provide a framework for distinguishing between schools that need a little help, those that need a lot of help and those that need to be completely turned around. The law could do more to close funding gaps in high-poverty schools. Congress should close the loophole that lets school districts ignore differences in teacher salaries when asking whether every school gets its fair share of funding. (hiddengap.org)
- Finally, states that adopt standards aligned to the demands of colleges and careers should get more flexibility in setting goals and timelines for accountability.
But the real importance of NCLB its function as a signaling device should not be changed. It's like an alarm clock telling us that it's time to get up and do the hard work to help our schools get better. The question is whether we have the courage, compassion and common sense to address these truths, or would we rather continue to just roll over and hit the snooze button.
Russlynn Ali is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based think tank focused on closing the achievement gaps separating low-income students and students of color from other young Californians.
No child left untested on math and reading