Congress: Its time to fix No Child Left Behind

The United States Congress at its recent swearing-in ceremony

By James Campbell

When Congress returns from its summer break, a number of important matters will be vying for lawmaker’s attention but for educators none will be more important than the law governing the nation’s schools – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The legislation, amended by President George Bush in 2002 and now referred to as the No Child Left behind Act, has been labeled a slow motion train wreck by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a number of states are openly defying the law’s intent.

Originally passed with great fanfare and bipartisan support, NCLB started out with the commendable goal of closing the achievement gap by stipulating   that 100% of US students be proficient in English and math by 2014. However, with its high stakes testing and progressive penalties for schools that fail to show yearly progress, the law has become a nightmare for districts.  Secretary Duncan recently announced that only 20% of the nation’s schools will reach the 2014 goal. In calling for Congress to reform NCLB, the president of the American Association of School Administrators Dan Domemech said   “ the systems of threats and punishments that we have labored under with No Child Left Behind has not helped to close the achievement gap. This lack of trust in the educational community is appalling. “

While there is broad consensus that NCLB must go, a national debate is taking shape over how to replace it. The Obama administration is supporting and encouraging the expansion of charter schools, an initiative  of the nation’s  Governor’s  establishing national academic standards in reading and math, known as Common Core Standards, (currently states set their own standards),   and a new set of assessments to measure student progress.  Duncan is also pushing to take this a step further and wants states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

In contrast, a growing chorus of administrators, teachers, college professors, and policy makers is pushing back against what they see as federalization of schools that started under NCLB. Instead, they want a return to more local control, more equitable funding among districts, teachers to have more say in what is taught in their classrooms, and an end high-stakes testing.  Diane Ravitch, an educational historian and research professor at New York University, has been outspoken in her criticism of the continuation of high-stakes testing.  According to her, “School curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.”

Opponents of the administration’s approach say the President’s plan ignores the “elephant in the classroom” – the fact that 1 in 5 children live in poverty. Most studies show the lowest performing schools usually have the highest concentration of students living in poverty. In a landmark research project in 1966, Johns Hopkins scientist James Coleman found   that non-school factors related to poverty such as family income, race, and parental level of educational attainment were much more significant in determining a child’s success in school than in -school factors. Richard Rothstein,  a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, in his book Class and School concluded   that, “the influences of social class characteristics is probably so powerful that schools cannot overcome it, no matter how well trained is their teachers, and no matter how well designed are their instructional programs and climates.”

In March, President Obama called on legislators to reform NCLB for the start of school this fall.  Seeing this wasn’t happening, he recently ordered the administration to offer relief to states from NCLB requirements  in exchange for adoption of his reform agenda. Opponents cried foul and several national groups, including those representing school administrators and school board members, sent letters of protest. Of this back door method, Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, questioned the president’s approach saying there is no precedent for rewriting a federal law by granting relief from regulations.

As the battle lines are being drawn, both sides will have to join forces to get on an already crowded fall agenda.  If successful, the good news is that Congress does have a track record of passing bipartisan education legislation. If efforts fail, the bad news is, with reauthorization three years overdue, the nation will be without an overall policy at a time when our competitive standing among developed countries is slipping.  With the era of No Child Left Behind ending, this is a critical time for the future of America’s schools that will require all parties to work together and to put the interests of children first.

A former member of the Baltimore City School Board and the Maryland House of Delegates, Mr. Campbell is a senior communcations manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education

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