Edited by Alain Jehlen
It has one of the most attractive names ever given to a law. It passed amid high bipartisan hopes of closing the wide achievement gaps that divide American children. And at four years old, it now has a track record.
That’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), the current incarnation of the 40-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
NCLB touches virtually every school in the country. Each year the impact grows—and so does a new bipartisan consensus that the law is hurting more than helping efforts to close achievement gaps.
Nobody knows the law’s effects on children better than NEA members, so this month, we hear from the experts—that’s you—about both the good and the bad.
This is not idle talk. NEA lobbyists and organizers are working to radically overhaul the law when it comes up for reauthorization in 2007. Congress may start work on changes this year. And educators can make a difference—if they speak up.
To plan the Association’s effort, NEA President Reg Weaver last June appointed an ESEA advisory committee led by Executive Committee member Becky Pringle. They’re holding hearings with members across the country to come up with proposals, rooted in classroom experience, for changing NCLB into a law that would really help achieve the goal of a great public school for every child.
Armed with these proposals, NEA will intensify its campaign to get Congress to listen to the nation’s working educators.
“We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges,” says Pringle. “We are putting together the ideas of NEA members for how the federal government can help us do our work. It’s essential that members get involved if we are to be successful in making the changes that we and our students need in this legislation, which is the most intrusive education law ever to come out of Washington.”
As NEA revs up its push to transform the law, see what some of your colleagues have to say about what NCLB means in their classrooms.
“Every Child Can Learn”
Originally, NCLB was supposed to ensure high standards for all children and send the message that no one should give up on students who don’t do well in school. That message mostly got sidetracked by the focus on sanctions. But one school that took the message to heart is Rapid City Central High School, the largest high school in South Dakota. It’s a place that has often intimidated American Indian students, especially those coming from intimate tribal schools. In 2001, the school had 300 American Indian ninth-graders—but only 44 eventually graduated.
American Indian and special education students at Central failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) in math and reading, and that got the attention of school leaders, says Robert Cook, who joined the staff of about 100 as its only American Indian teacher three years ago. Cook teaches in the school’s new program for at-risk teens, Lakolkiciyapi (Lakota for “an alliance of people working together”), a school-within-a-school that integrates native culture into the curriculum.
“If they feel a sense of belonging, they’ll look at school as a safe place to be,” says Cook of these students. “We can’t teach kids if they don’t come to school.”
So far, so good—last year, Central’s native students achieved AYP in reading and math, and a record number of them graduated.
A Better Deal for Homeless Students
Buried inside NCLB are clauses that strengthen the 1988 McKinney-Vento law on educating homeless children. Schools must now enroll homeless students immediately, without waiting for records from previous schools. And these students are entitled to stay at the same school even if they move.
One of counselor Rose Mathews’ students at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville feared that if he told anybody his dad had kicked him out, the school would, too. The student lived in his car and then at the Salvation Army before confiding in Mathews.
“Before, it would have been, ‘You can go down the road to the school you’re [now] zoned for,’“ says Mathews. But under the new law, she explains, this student was able to stay at Hunters Lane. “It has made us more aware and put us on alert.”
Using Data To Improve Teaching
Too much testing can get in the way of learning, but good tests, well used, can be powerful tools. The results they yield can guide teachers in boosting students to a higher level.
It’s all about the data in Deborah Gore’s second-grade classroom in San Bernardino County, California. Her students sharpen their pencils for monthly reading and math assessments. Then the results drive Gore’s instruction. When diagnostic reports show weaknesses in vocabulary, “we talk about words, label them, use them,” Gore says. She also shares data with parents, pointing out ways they can help at home.
Two years ago, her school failed to make AYP, scoring last of 22 schools in its district. But last year, the school soared to sixth.
“Isn’t that awesome?” Gore exclaims. “This really pays off.”
Group Scores Can Pinpoint Problems
On the surface, Calusa Elementary School in tony Boca Raton, Florida, looks highly successful. For the last three years, Calusa has earned an A-ranking from the state based on the scores of its mostly White and affluent students. But there’s a problem at Calusa. Many of the school’s low-income students, more than two-thirds of them Black and Hispanic, do poorly on achievement tests. Their lagging scores used to stay hidden among the piles of answer sheets from more affluent students, but under NCLB, each group’s test results are reported separately. Many NEA members say the separate reporting is helpful when it’s used to point up problems, not to punish educators.
“Disaggregating the data drives our instruction,” says Calusa Elementary third-grade teacher Deborah Fox. “We’re able to prioritize these students’ needs.”
Teachers help craft academic programs to meet the needs of students who score low. “When the results come back at the end of the year and you see these students who had a hard time succeed, that’s very rewarding,” Fox says.
Testing crowds out learning
Wish you had a dollar for every hour one of your students spends filling in test bubbles instead of experimenting with magnets or reading the latest Junie B. book? Cheryl Chapman must give her second-graders in DuPage County, Illinois, a constant stream of standardized tests.
“I give them a week’s worth of tests every six weeks in language arts,” Chapman wrote in an e-mail. “Our lit program is so highly scripted, a second-grader could teach it. I’ve let them at times. I use it because I have to, but I supplement like crazy.”
Chapman administers another language arts test three times per year, plus several kinds of math tests. “All kids are supposed to graph their progress on the computer, even first-graders,” says Chapman. “Our administrators think the graphing will make the kids more motivated, but I haven’t seen the research to support this. It’s just a big stress-out.”
The results are supposed to provide insight into what kids have mastered and where they need help, but Chapman says they don’t add “any information I don’t already know if I just teach it.”
Recently, Chapman’s husband asked her why she planned to retire early, at age 60—after all, she loves teaching. She answered that she no longer sees what she does as teaching. “My job is to protect my students from the local repercussions of this Administration’s educational policies,” she says. “I wish Americans would wake up and see that these policies create little stressed-out robots, not thinking, creative, smart kids.”
One Size Does Not Fit All
NCLB applies blanket rules to all students and all situations—a one-size-fits-all approach. NEA members know that doesn’t work.
One glaring example is the requirement that special education children meet the same standards as children with no disabilities. More schools fail to meet AYP because of low scores for special education students than any other group.
Recognizing this problem in the law, federal officials first arbitrarily decided that 1 percent of students would be allowed to meet more appropriate standards. Later, they added another 2 percent. But that’s not nearly enough, say special educators like middle school teacher Tracy Keuler of Salem, Oregon.
“In our special education classes, we have slow learners with low IQs and other learning disabilities. Special education gives them their best chance to achieve even the smallest academic gains. It’s a slow, often frustrating process.
How can they be expected to pass the same tests as other students? I am so tired of hearing the entire building’s scores were brought down because my kids didn’t pass!” Keuler laments.
“What if the government decided physical disabilities could be eliminated through standards? What if there were a mandate that doctors must bring their patients to ‘normal standards’ and all patients must be able to walk? The government does not seem to believe that our students’ disabilities are real,” she adds.
“NCLB tells kids that there is something wrong with them if they don’t meet the ‘standards.’ Kids who have true disabilities should be applauded for what they do, not made to feel worse.”
Educators get blamed for problems they can’t control
In its mandated punishments for schools where students score low, NCLB seems to assume that educators can just shove America’s deep social problems—poverty, racism, drugs, crime, and the rest—right out the classroom door. Students must pass the same tests regardless of whether they lead lives of privilege or despair. But educators know the outside world is always in their classrooms, sitting with each student.
Oscar Hernandez teaches language arts to at-risk teens at Reedley High School near Fresno, California, in a rural, low-income area where many children speak Spanish at home.
“Many of these kids come in with no dreams. They think, ‘This is my life.’ Some of them are into gang membership and drugs,” he says.
Right now, he’s teaching a unit about gangs and “the kids are eating it up. They can’t put down the books. They’re totally engaged.” Last year, he connected just as powerfully with a unit on migrant labor.
Can these students reach high levels of academic achievement? Yes, they can, Hernandez insists, but the state test won’t show it—and the school will be labeled “failing”—because many of the questions are so divorced from their world.
More Teaching to the Test, Less Teaching for Understanding
The single-minded focus on test scores as the only measure of a school’s success forces educators to concentrate their time and effort on raising those scores. Teachers know that’s no way to educate children.
Lilia Olivas teaches a bilingual fifth grade in Tucson, Arizona. She turned a Valentine’s Day party into a math lesson: If each student gives every other student a valentine, how many is that? The session was videotaped for a nationally distributed library of exemplary lessons. But these days, it’s getting harder for her to carve out time for creative lessons because she has so many topics to cover for the all-important test. “Kids are judged by a number, not by what they understand,” she says. Even if they know how to find a test answer, many can’t apply what they’ve learned in new situations because they didn’t understand it in the first place. The result: “Many of our students are getting turned off by math. They try to get into fields without math, especially minority kids.”
If it’s not on the test, kiss it good-bye
Nowhere in No Child Left Behind does it say that programs like art, music, and physical education should be cut. But the law’s focus on reading and math doesn’t leave much time for students to try their hand at becoming the next Jackson Pollock.
“Art is your soul,” says art teacher Mollie Theel in Rochester, Minnesota, where middle school students used to get nearly 50 minutes of art daily. Budget slashing in the 1990s began consigning art to a death of a thousand cuts, but NCLB delivered a body blow, because art is not on the test, and therefore not a priority.
Now, sixth-graders in Rochester get half as much art as before, eighth-graders get only one semester, and seventh-graders get nothing.
Not enough money to improve learning
NCLB promised big increases in aid to high-poverty schools, but the promises have been broken. This chart shows the growing gap between the promised amounts and actual funding.
The cumulative FY02–FY06 gap between NCLB authorizations and appropriations totals $40.3 billion.
Source: National Education Association, December 2005
“I understand about math and reading,” says Theel. “I just want fair time and respect. Art is not fluff. We teach kids how to see in new ways. We touch the senses.” Theel has always helped students connect their creative art lessons to their other subjects. “A lot of what I do is applied math—proportion and ratio, scale and measuring.”
Art teachers feel more than a little undervalued in the era of NCLB, Theel says. “We get, ‘How nice. What pretty pictures.’ People have no clue what goes into pretty pictures.” And each year, it seems to get worse. “I have some very bright kids and I know that when they get to high school, chances are they will not get to take art.”
What’s “proficient?” Under NCLB, the state decides, but because the law requires that every student be “proficient” by 2014, it should be a level that any student, if taught well, can attain. Study after study concludes that with the levels states have set, almost every school will fail to reach 100 percent proficiency by the deadline.
Some states have defined “proficient” to be so advanced that even successful adults can’t measure up. Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle had her senior policy advisors take her state’s fifth-grade math test. They failed.
So Lingle thinks the standard is unrealistic. “No matter how much effort we put in,” she says, “more and more students will fail.”
Military access—‘Opt out’ vs. ‘opt in’
School districts receiving NCLB money are required to give student information to military recruiters. But parents and students can “opt out” by asking that their personal information not be released. To help them, Portland, Maine, schools added this option to student emergency forms. Of the 1,341 students at Deering High School this year, 698 chose not to release their information.
Last year’s NEA Representative Assembly voted to propose that the law be changed from “opt out” to “opt in”: No contact information would be released without student or parent approval. NEA is supporting a bill in Congress, H.R. 559, to make that change.
Schools have an incentive to push out low-scoring students
Reports say that some schools, desperate to make AYP, are pushing low-scoring students out. One example: An Orlando, Florida, newspaper discovered that 126 low-scorers were dropped from the rolls of a local high school in 2003, just before the state test.
“That coincidence was unexplainable,” says David DeMond, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. “It was an embarrassment.” The principal denied dismissing students to boost scores, but after the bad publicity, she was reassigned.
“That practice is severely monitored to be sure it does not happen again,” DeMond says.
Don’t judge schools only by their students’ test scores. Instead, let states use multiple measures of success.
Don’t require testing every single year between grades 3 and 8.
Do fully fund Title I so every eligible child can be served.
Do ask for reports from states and school districts on what they are doing to help families and communities, as well as educators, improve student learning.
These are some of the 14 principles proposed by the NEA, NAACP, National Council of Churches, and other organizations pushing for common sense changes in No Child Left Behind to make the law live up to its lofty name.
The coalition, called the Forum on Educational Accountability, started as 27 organizations that presented their proposals in October 2004. More groups are signing on all the time—68 at last count.
Paras Face High Standards, Low Pay
NCLB sets very high education standards for instructional paraprofessionals in federal Title I programs.
The law allows districts to look at paras’ on-the-job skill in deciding whether they’re qualified, but many districts didn’t take the trouble to do that. Instead, they forced many time-pressed and money-strapped paras to take courses or pass tests in order to keep their jobs.
“Can you imagine asking a 20-year veteran paraprofessional to take a test, and if they fail, they lose their job?” asks Stanhope, New Jersey, paraprofessional Elise Falleni. “NCLB has created a lot of fear and anxiety.”
Falleni says New Jersey paras are being judged primarily through a test that does not consider work experience or knowledge of student behavior.
“The law doesn’t measure the ways [paras] work with students who are disrupting the class, or who are hyper, autistic, or physically challenged,” says Falleni.
She says many paras have second jobs and were unable to return to school to get an associate’s degree, especially since most school districts didn’t offer tuition assistance.
But Seattle para Yvonne Miller-Boyd had a better experience. District officials there worked together with the Seattle Education Association and “made professional development a focal point,” she reports. Meeting the new requirements, she adds, has boosted the paras’ self-esteem.
Now, says Miller-Boyd, the district should acknowledge the paras’ higher skills by paying them more.
He's Teacher-of-the-Year, But Not 'Hightly Qualified'
Educators don’t want unqualified people teaching, but who is “highly qualified”? That issue loomed large at the start of NCLB when thousands of veteran teachers were suddenly told their years of successful experience didn’t matter and they’d have to go back to school or take a test to prove themselves. Although some big problems remain, NEA affiliates and state officials hammered out workable solutions for most situations. But the case of Montana science teacher Jon Runnalls showed how far off the mark federal bureaucrats can be.
“In 2003, I was selected as Montana Teacher of the Year,” he says, “but through the eyes of the people in Washington, D.C., I was unqualified!
“I teach general science at Helena Middle School. They felt that if I do plants, I should have a degree in botany. When I’m teaching kids about plate tectonics, I should have a degree in geology. To do a chemistry experiment, I need a degree in chemistry.
“We’re all for highly qualified teachers,” says Runnalls, “but there has to be some kind of flexibility. A one-room schoolhouse in Montana is not the same as a classroom in Chicago. We used to determine by ourselves who was highly qualified or not, but now we’ve lost that local control.”
Fortunately, things are getting better, he says.
“We pushed for a combination of measurements in Montana—including an assessment by a supervising teacher and a Praxis-like subject test—to determine whether a teacher is highly qualified. So, I believe now I’m ‘highly qualified.’ That’s kind of nice.”
Reading First money—With Strings Attached
NCLB’s Reading First program provides money for schools to improve reading among their K–3 students—and that’s certainly a good thing. But federal officials have stirred up controversy by using their control over the funds to tell teachers how to do their jobs.
That controversy is prominently on display in the staff lounge of Cumberland Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, which has a Reading First grant and is trying to decide whether to re-apply. “There are those who are adamant about not re-applying, and those who are just as adamant about how it’s helped the children,” says teacher Dorcel Benson.
Proponents say students are benefiting from the program’s required daily dose of uninterrupted reading (that’s 90 minutes of Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Ramona Quimby, Age 8). And they welcome the professional development that the grant money buys. But the mandates that come along with the benefits rankle others.
“We have to complete 90 hours of online development and keep folders tracking them, and someone comes into the school to monitor our hours,” says Benson. She considers herself a house divided on this issue. But she doesn’t like the rigid way Reading First chose their reading program for them. “We have very little input,” she says. “Like it or not, we use it.”
So at Cumberland they must use the same reading program that she used at her previous school, where she feels higher poverty rates and reading deficiencies made it more suitable. “We need more flexibility,” Benson says.