Growing resistance to the No Child Left Behind Act has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Department of Education. But while some state officials push for implementation changes, advocates say adhering to NCLB is critical to closing the achievement gap. Included: States' arguments for changes.
The federal No Child Left Act needs serious mending, or more states will turn their backs on federal funding to avoid the law's requirements, speakers from Minnesota and California told reporters.
Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust , said, however, that although states had been nudged in the past to improve the achievement of low-performing students, they never took the hint. Now the U.S. Department of Education is done nudging and has started pushing.
"An awful lot of the resistance is a much deeper resentment to the law," Haycock said, speaking at a session of the Education Writers Association conference in San Francisco in April 2004. "There is big-time resistance to the changes necessary to help disadvantaged kids succeed. We needed to tell the states how to set accountability. We needed to disrupt the assignment of good teachers to good schools."
THE PUSH IS ON
States' lackluster responses to previous Department of Education attempts to improve accountability while student achievement continued to drop prompted the department to adopt tougher measures, Haycock said. The achievement gap between white and minority students in the United States shrunk over a 20-year period leading up to the late 1980s; in 1989-1990, it began to increase again. A federal law passed in 1994 required states to adopt testing programs to receive federal funds. "States were told that the Department of Education would stop scrutinizing how they spent money on education, as long as they reported progress," according to Haycock.
"But states did not set high standards, and the achievement gap increased by 50 percent during the last decade," she said.
With no sanctions for noncompliance, only 11 states met federal requirements in 1994, according to Brian Jones, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education. Facing the strict deadlines of NCLB, however, all states had met the deadline for filing accountability plans with the Department of Education by June 2003.
"What the law [NCLB] is doing is redefining what it means to be an excellent school," according to Jones. "You can have a really good school, but it is not serving all of the kids it should."
"There is no question parents want to know if Latino, African-American, or special education kids are not doing well," noted Haycock.
Jones agreed, though, that NCLB needs some work, and he is aware that trying to understand and implement the law is frustrating many educators.
"It's certainly not a perfect law," he said. "The statute is vague and, at many times, confusing. I'm not trying to dismiss concerns around the country. There is a good deal of emerging resistance."
LAW IS "DEMORALIZING" GOOD SCHOOLS
Lawmakers and education officials in several states are voicing their dissatisfaction more loudly, and some states have considered turning their backs on federal money so they can opt out of the law's requirements.
The Minnesota state legislature, for example, had crafted a bill saying the state would forfeit federal funding if the law did not change, said state senator Steve Kelley. No action has been taken on that bill as of 2005.
Legislators and educators in Minnesota view NCLB as "demoralizing" to public schools, Kelley said. Schools face penalties if they fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) with all their student subgroups, even though many factors affect a school's ability to reach those goals.
"Minnesota's African-American and poor kids do okay on the tests," Kelley said. "White kids do really well. The demoralizing part is that you can't say anything good about the schools because of the achievement gap.
"AYP can be affected by a few kids. The law does seem to set up schools to fail, and it does undermine the public's confidence in public schools."
NCLB is not intended to discourage educators, Jones stressed. "This is not meant to demoralize," he said. "We're saying schools need to do better for all studentsThere are a lot of questions about how to address special education students and students with disabilities. We've been working on those things for a good long time."
California officials also disagree with the way the law wants states to assess schools, said Reed Hastings, president of the California state Board of Education. State officials want to use a growth model to determine which schools to help, Hastings said, and the Department of Education has not been receptive.
A growth model measures the academic success of the local education agency, school, or student subgroups on the basis of how much student achievement improves year-to-year. NCLB requires states to measure adequate progress using a "status bar" model, which measures adequate yearly progress based on whether a school has hurdled a single achievement measure. Twelve other states have asked to use growth models as well.
"With a growth model, we are looking to improve kids who are there," he continued. "At the end of the year, we have secure, reliable, valid test. It gives the parents information and is diagnostic for the school."
According to Haycock, NCLB does permit a growth model called "safe harbor." That feature allows schools to avoid being designated in need of improvement if they can demonstrate that students in a particular subgroup are making significant progress toward proficiency, but have not yet met AYP.
"The California growth model allows for the achievement gap to grow," she said.
SHORTCHANGING GIFTED STUDENTS?
Some educators and parents also have complained that the NCLB's emphasis on closing the achievement gap is causing districts to minimize or cancel other programs, such as services for gifted students.
The law does not force schools to make that choice, Haycock insisted. "Is under-educating gifted kids necessary to bring up under-performing kids? No. Educators choose not to support gifted programs."
Although logically, there is no connection between short-changing gifted students and educating special education students, Kelley said, districts still find themselves having to make hard choices. "It's been a timing problem. Schools already were having funding problems, and districts are having resource problems. So they are cutting back."
Even though the law has faults, NCLB has awakened interest the achievement gap issue like nothing before, Haycock said. "Even the people who are complaining about the law say at least now the achievement gap is getting the attention it deserves."