(Opinion) — I remember when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal law was promoted by George W. Bush and approved by Congress in 2001. Bush wanted to be known as “the education president,” and this was going to be one of his major accomplishments in office, only a year into his first term.
As an editorial writer who often covered educational issues, I read the bill after Bush signed it into law. I thought it was a well-intentioned effort to improve education in public schools, but the deeper I examined it, the less sense it made.
Fourteen years after it was implemented, NCLB doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s still alive, but Congress is once again trying to change how it works as it considers reauthorizing a program that from the beginning has caught flak from teachers, principals, parents and students.
I can’t say “I told you so,” because I didn’t. While the NCLB definitely appeared to have flaws, the law still held out a lot of promise for educators who wanted to improve student learning. The consensus in many states, including Wyoming, was “Let’s see if it works before we object to the program.” That’s the attitude I adopted as well.
Unfortunately, by the time it was clear to many educators and other officials that NCLB was a complicated, unworkable mess, there was no easy way to change course. The number of detractors grew, led by teachers who complained that it placed all of its emphasis on how well students did on national standardized tests. “Teaching to the tests” even though it left less time to work on a school district’s curriculum was seen as the best use of a teacher’s time and skills.
Why were such tests so key to the educational process? Because if students didn’t show they were proficient in reading or mathematics, their schools were subject to sanctions that could actually give them fewer teaching resources than they had. It’s nonsensical that schools with less-than-desired test scores could eventually be subject to closure, but that was the protocol.
Three consecutive years of failing to meet what federal education officials called “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, would result in additional funds for struggling students to receive tutoring and other supplemental education services. That’s a good thing, right?
But miss the AYP target for four straight years and the school may be labeled as needing “corrective action.” That could include the wholesale replacement of staff, introducing a new curriculum, or making students spend more time in class.
Failing AYP for a fifth year results in a restructuring plan for the whole school. If it bombs out for a sixth year, options include closing the school, turning it into a charter school, hiring a private company to run the school or asking the state department of education to directly operate the school.
Sanctions based on assumptions
Wow! Admittedly if a school staff doesn’t get its act together within six years, something significant must be done. But setting arbitrary targets for schools to hit or be severely punished isn’t the answer. There could be many factors contributing to why a student may not be performing proficiently. The feds shouldn’t assume it’s because the kids are stupid or the teachers don’t know what they’re doing.
A school with a high percentage of low-income students, for example, may see children come to class without the proper nutrition needed to perform well. A class might have several students with learning disabilities that have not been diagnosed, resulting in poor test scores.
The list of ultimate sanctions that can befall a school if it doesn’t meet AYP for years is a red flag that raises the possibility some of the strongest NCLB advocates may have some ulterior motives to see public schools fail.
The religious right has long supported actions to weaken or destroy the public school system by creating voucher programs that take public funds and transfer the money so more students can be taught in charter schools, private or church-run schools, or home-schooled. If enough students leave public schools, the entire system could collapse for lack of funding to pay teachers and staff, or to build and maintain schools. A school’s secular curriculum could be replaced by religious-based education.
So it’s interesting to see that the punishment for public schools failing under NCLB includes turning them into charter schools or allowing private interests to take over public schools.
Bush and Congress created a system that has pressured administrators to raise test scores or lose funding, or possibly be forced to close their doors. The feds, meanwhile, have been putting an additional type of squeeze on teachers by encouraging school districts to evaluate their individual job performance based primarily on their students’ test scores.
Are teachers more likely to say to heck with it and focus on skill sets that have been determined locally, or teach so their students can perform well on federal standardized tests so they can keep their jobs? Bueller? … Bueller? … Anyone?
Even the name of the law — No Child Left Behind — has always troubled me. I understand that the goal is to bring every student up to proficiency in math and reading, but the way it was initially structured a school district had to achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Many states have applied for waivers so they can have extra time to meet the standards, but Wyoming has only requested a partial waiver that would allow the state more funding for tutors instead of hiring ones outside the school district.
Here’s Wyoming’s biggest education dilemma: For 2014-15, only 17 percent of its schools were determined to meet the AYP federal benchmarks. But the state also has its own statewide accountability system, and under it more than half of the schools have met state proficiency standards.
Congress, Enzi at work
Congress, which hasn’t made any progress on reforming NCLB since it was created, is working on it again now that the original deadline has passed for having all students achieve proficiency. The Senate and House have passed separate bills, and a conference committee is trying to work out the differences between the two chambers’ measures by the end of the year. Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who has been a consistent critic of NCLB because of its myriad federal rules and regulations, is on the committee.
Enzi, like most officials in Wyoming, is a strong proponent of state and local control over education, and he has generally embraced the key changes Congress is working on. Essentially the federal government would still mandate tests, but states would decide how to bring under-performing schools up to standards.
After several years of experimenting with different state accountability criteria that failed, Wyoming educators seem to finally be happy with using the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS) as its standardized test to measure how well students are progressing. After spending millions of dollars on different consultants to design and implement tests in the past decade, it’s good to finally see that such a lengthy, costly and controversial education storm seems to have finally blown over at the state level.
Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s state superintendent of public instruction, said the proposed NCLB reform is long overdue. She is lobbying for the bill along with the Wyoming Education Association.
The new bill in Congress is called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. What’s with this federal obsession that 100 percent of students at each school must meet an arbitrary score — even if it’s chosen by individual states instead of the feds — or they’re considered to have failed? All students learn at different rates, and unless the mindset about what’s considered success or failure is changed, the revised program will already start with the handicap of having unobtainable goals.
But the idea of giving more power to the states and local school districts to teach what they believe is important and evaluate their own students’ progress should be a move in the right direction. This isn’t going to be the same No Child Left Behind program that the older siblings of today’s students knew, but given the problems created and exacerbated by Bush’s federal law since it began, that’s a good thing.
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