Approaching the fifth anniversary of its enactment and up for congressional reauthorization next year, the No Child Left Behind act continues to be a favorite punching bag for many of the country's largest educational organizations.
All claim to have no problems with NCLB's intention, but beyond that they tear it apart, arguing that it isn't as effective as it should be in part because of inadequate funding and unrealistic or unworkable requirements.
Most educational groups suggest improvements, usually focused on their own particular interests.
They all will be laid out in public hearings and intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying on Capitol Hill when the reauthorization process gets underway in the new Congress next year.
But even if this fall's elections shift the political direction in the legislative branch, NCLB appears likely to stay on the statute books because it provides a framework, flaws notwithstanding, to bring about significant advances in student achievement in the country's public schools.
Leaders of education organizations seem to recognize that, while they freely cite what they think is wrong with the law. "It's critical that federal and state policymakers stay the course and not be swayed by what are often politically motivated attacks on a law that's starting to spark real changes in the lives of kids," Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, declared in a joint statement with the National Alliance of Black School Educators when states released their 2003-2004 student achievement results. "It is clear," the two organizations agreed, "that the No Child Left Behind Act is spurring real change."
Once assailed by former U.S. education secretary Rod Paige as "a terrorist organization," even the National Education Association takes a relatively restrained approach to NCLB. Paige later apologized for "an inappropriate choice of words" but still maintained that the NEA used "obstructionist scare tactics" in opposing the law.
"We have always supported closing achievement gaps and enhancing student achievement and the environment for teaching and learning," says NEA President Reg Weaver. "However, the way the law is crafted, it makes it very difficult if not impossible to attain those goals."
As her job requires, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is the measure's chief cheerleader. "Thanks to this law, we're now able to fine-tune the system to make sure that every child is learning-regardless of race, income level, background and zip code. And it's working," she exulted in August at the opening of a Reno school.
Earlier in the year, at the first of a series of NCLB summits-this one in Philadelphia-Spellings lauded the Philadelphia School District's NCLB achievements under its chief executive officer, Paul Vallas, who has been implementing sweeping district-wide reforms since 2002. Under Vallas' leadership, Spellings noted, student achievement has risen by 11 points in reading and 17 points in math. Fifth-grade math scores alone increased by 26 points.
Spellings cites such data wherever she goes. "The results are beginning to come in," she said on the fourth anniversary of NCLB last January. "They show a revival in mathematics achievement in the early grades, coupled with more reading progress in the past five years among nine-year-olds than in the previous three decades. Remarkable academic gains have been made by African American and Hispanic students, helping to close an achievement gap once called intractable and inevitable."
"Let's Get It Right"
As the National Education Association sees it, NCLB presents obstacles to strengthening public schools because of these shortcomings, listed in policy papers:
"It imposes invalid one-size-fits-all measures on students, failing to recognize that children learn in different ways and timelines."
"Its vision of accountability focuses more on punishing children and schools than on giving the support needed to improve."
"It favors privatization, rather than teacher-led, family-oriented solutions."
In what Weaver calls a "positive agenda," NEA has suggested changes, including providing "more flexibility" in several areas. "As reauthorization comes up, we want to try to improve it so it will be able to do what it was intended to do, which is to leave no child behind," Weaver says.
NCLB-Let's Get It Right is the theme of a campaign launched by the American Federation of Teachers. The law has a way to go, according to AFT Executive Vice President Antonia Cortese. NCLB has brought about government-endorsed high standards and accountability, she concedes, but funding is behind by more than $40 million, she says. "And there's no evidence that the law's interventions-choice and supplemental education services-are effective," she says.
AFT zeroes in on a few areas for improvement, including funding and the highly qualifed teacher provision. One is the adequate yearly progress formula for holding schools accountable because it "doesn't really measure progress and fails to distinguish between effective and ineffective schools." AFT also cites "little evidence" to suggest that sanctions on struggling schools are effective.
"We believe NCLB has brought critically important focus on student achievement, especially on closing achievement gaps between groups," says Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust.
The "big disappointments" as the Education Trust sees them include teacher quality provisions that "have not been implemented in ways that either acknowledge all the problems we still need to confront or assure that teachers are actually getting the extra support and professional development they need," he says.
Haycock, testifying before the House Education Committee in July, pointed to the emphasis on growth measures in improving accountability systems. "Basing school accountability determinations on measures of individual students' growth over time can improve accountability," she said.
However, she concluded, "we have got to get beyond this never-ending quest for the perfect accountability system" and turn to curriculum development, professional development, and leadership training for principals.
Eric Cooper, founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, characterizes NCLB as one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act. "I love it," he says, because "you can begin to pinpoint how successful a school really is across all student cohort groups." His organization, he explains, cares particularly about "school dependent" children who do not get parental support because of "family challenged circumstances."
But just as Haycock mentions in part, school dependent children must rely on qualified teachers. "There is no more important in-school factor than teacher quality. That means we have to earmark much more money for it than is typically spent on professional development," Cooper says.
Helping Those That Most Need It
For the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., closing the achievement gap between English Language Learners and other students is a key promise of NCLB. The goal is vital as American schools take on more Latinos. About 8.8 million Latino students, or 19 percent of the total student population, are enrolled in public schools, and nearly half are ELLs.
NCLB "has put a spotlight on the population of English language learners like no other law before it," says Melissa Lazarin, NCLR's senior policy analyst for education reform. However, she continues, it isn't working as well as it should.
A NCLR report shows that many states are exempting ELLs from test score and student outcomes, which thwarts the very purpose of the law-to reach the most disadvantaged students. "Too many states are focused on getting out of being held accountable for the progress of their ELL students. That is unacceptable," says NCLR president and CEO Janet Murguia.
NCLR recommended ways for federal and state policymakers to improve school and state compliance with NCLB requirements, including refining the definition of AYP for ELLs and ensuring that states and school districts include ELLs in AYP determinations.
The American Association of School Administrators agrees that among the best results of NCLB has been data disaggregation. "Having the ability to know how different subgroups of students are performing is a tool that has helped school districts look at their own performance," says Mary Kusler, assistant director of government relations.
But one of AASA's principal concerns, she continues, is federal involvement in local district decisionmaking on NCLB. "There has to be a way to bring the power and interference of the federal government in local districts into line equal with the amount of money they are providing," Kusler says.
She adds there is concern over how decisions are made. "We don't feel there is an equality between states," she says. "It should be a public process."
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce held summer and fall hearings to examine key aspects of NCLB and lay the foundation for reauthorization.
The panel heard testimony on lessons learned from implementing NCLB, the impact it has had on students with disabilities and limited English proficiency, and ways to incorporate NCLB's math and science priorities into creative lesson planning.
One hearing focused on free supplemental educational services, like tutoring, that are available to students in schools that do not make AYP for three consecutive years. Few eligible students take advantage of them and few parents know of them.
Another possible option-scholarships for low-income children in persistently underperforming schools to attend private schools of their choice-was proposed in legislation introduced to Congress.
The issues will be reviewed in the reauthorization process. But there is little doubt that NCLB is here to stay. "The reauthorization of NCLB presents us with a fresh and important opportunity to take this debate to the next level," says Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Education Committee, "and expand school choice options even further, providing the very best education possible to every single child in America."
Alan Dessoff is a contributing editor.