When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed by President Bush in 2001, it brought with it a laundry list of new responsibilities for educators nationwide. Now the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has put together a number of online tools designed to help school leaders muddle through the details.

The latest resources are a 140-page desktop reference covering every major program and aspect of the legislation and the inaugural issue of a new eMail newsletter published by the department.

Availability of these new guides was announced only days after state school officials nationwide received a blunt letter from Education Secretary Rod Paige, in which he commended some educators for their support of NCLB initiatives while chastising others for their complacency, calling them “enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity.”

According to Paige’s letter (see full text following this story), several schools across the country are not yet wholly committed to seeing the legislation succeed. In fact, he said, some are looking for ways to lower educational standards, rather than face the consequences of failing to meet more stringent demands.

“Unfortunately, some states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the low performance of their schools,” the letter said. “It is nothing less than shameful that some defenders of the status quo are trying to hide the performance of underachieving schools in order to shield parents from reality. Not only is this political tactic an embarrassment, it undermines the public’s trust in education as a cornerstone of freedom.”

The letter pledged that the federal government is committed to working with state and local school officials to achieve four key principles of the legislation: providing accountability for results, more flexibility and local control, enhanced parental choice, and instruction based on scientifically based research.

To help school leaders meet these goals, ED is turning to technology.

According to Dan Langan, an ED spokesman, few arenas provide a better means of disseminating those resources to hundreds of thousands stakeholders nationwide than the internet.

“The internet is one of the most powerful tools we have to reach out not only to policy makers, but to parents as well,” he said. “Technology is big part of everything we do here at the Department of Education. It’s a powerful way to reach out to people.”

The new desktop reference, which can be downloaded for free from ED’s web site, contains information on every major program in the law, including standards for improving academic achievement; recruiting, training, and retaining high-quality teachers; flexibility and accountability; English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction; and the use of technology in the classroom.

According to ED officials, the manual details the purpose of each program, tells what’s new in the law and how each program works, and lists requirements, including how to achieve quality and measure performance, as well as key activities and responsibilities of state education departments.

Langan said the new desktop reference is one of several resources federal officials are providing to make sure all schools comply with the law. “We are engaged in a variety of outreach activities,” he said. “We have a myriad of ways to spread the word.”

Another of those ways involves the publication of ED’s latest online newsletter, “ED News: No Child Left Behind.” The twice-monthly publication culls the department’s web site for documents and press releases covering different aspects of the legislation. The new resource contains grant information, best practices related to NCLB implementation, and important announcements made by Paige himself.

According to Langan, ED also is using a number of face-to-face encounters—including regional conferences, workshops, and educational tours—to help spread the word about NCLB.

School officials and education organizations nationwide say ED’s latest efforts, especially its use of technology, so far have been effective.

Randall Moody, manager of federal policy and politics for the National Education Association (NEA), said, “Overall, I think the department has done a good job of getting the information out.”

Moody called the desktop reference “pretty comprehensive” and said he thinks ED has showed a concerted effort to help educators understand what is expected of them under the new legislation.

Still, he said, interpretation of the law remains difficult because requirements are filtered down through several channels before finally reaching individual teachers in the classroom. “I think there is still confusion,” he said.

According to Moody, it’s not practical to expect state and local educators nationwide to make the same interpretations. “Everyone has their own take on these things,” he said. “That’s to be expected.”

Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), provided a similar assessment. “I’ll put it this way, [ED] does a good job of making the information available,” he said. “Although it’s not always so easy to find.”

Weil said ED’s desktop reference and eMail newsletter are very effective resources. What’s difficult, however, is finding information outside of those channels.

According to Weil, ED’s web site is a treasure trove of resources to help educators implement the new legislation. The problem is that the massive amount of content makes it nearly impossible for novice users—including many teachers—to search efficiently, he said.

Weil said more simplicity is necessary if the government expects teachers to take an active role in the implementation process. According to him, teachers are not as savvy at mining and culling complex databases as the policy makers and analysts who perform such tasks on a daily basis.

“The AFT believes teachers need to have a bigger say,” he said. “Certainly, the new law provides for that, but the leadership has to be open to allow teacher participation.” Weil said the real problem with the legislation is that, in some cases, no information exists at all. A number of the requirements—including those provisions for supplemental services and scientifically based research—have never been attempted. “We’re trying to learn as we go,” he said. “I think they are trying everything that they can think of.”

Still others complain all the free information and online tools in the world will do little to help those schools in areas where adequate funding remains the primary barrier to overall improvement.

“If ED wants to set these standards and expectations, let them pay for them. They don’t even pay all of the expenses we have for the implementation of Americans with Disabilities Act mandates,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of Marysville Unified School District in California. “What that means is that Secretary Paige in effect is saying, ‘You’ve got to do it, and it is your problem.’ Giving us resource web sites won’t get us there. ED needs to put their money where their goals are—at a level of funding that will truly make a difference.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

No Child Left Behind: A Desktop Reference
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/reference.html

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

Letter from Secretary of Education Rod Paige to Chief State School Officers

October 22, 2002

Dear Chief State School Officers:

This year our nation entered a new era in education: we declared that we will build an education system in which every child learns. We will support schools that make sure children are safe and parents involved. And we will construct a system in which schools and educators are held accountable for student achievement.

Americans all across our country understand the nature of the challenge before us. They have repeatedly told their elected representatives at the state, local, and federal level that educating every child is our nation’s most important domestic priority.

In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans heard this call and united behind an extraordinary moral vision to answer it. Our leaders made a bold commitment to provide equal education under the law by passing the No Child Left Behind Act.

I am writing to thank those of you who have accepted the challenge of that law and to applaud you for your efforts to educate every child and improve every school.

In response to the new federal law, nearly every state has recognized the absolute reality that thousands of schools are in need of improvement and that millions of children are not learning. In fact, some states have taken a bold stand and listed hundreds, even thousands, of schools “in need of improvement” in an effort to get those schools the help they need.

It is important to note the law does not use the term “failing” schools, because in some cases, schools identified as “in need of improvement” may, in fact, be succeeding in some measures.

What’s important is that we know these schools are capable of getting better results for all their students. By identifying schools as “in need of improvement” you are indicating your commitment to help them reach their potential as soon as possible. In fact, you are blazing a new trail as you confront the evidence and do something about it. I applaud you for your courage.

Such actions reinforce the message that No Child Left Behind is a constructive law and its reforms flow from a bipartisan spirit and belief that every child can learn. Simply put, a school identified as “in need of improvement” is a school that the President, the leaders in Congress, and the American people believe can improve.

By devoting new energy to those schools identified for improvement, you have refocused the debate and taken the first steps toward changing students’ lives for the better. Such honesty is a badge of courage and should be acknowledged as such by the citizens in your state. It shows that many of you understand that real accountability begins with informing the public and inviting support as well as scrutiny.

You are not trying to “game” the system for short-term benefits and no one can accuse you of trying to lower the standards for what your students should know.

The American public already understands that our schools can and must do better if we are to continue to live as a free and prosperous people. When more than two out of every three fourth-graders can’t read proficiently on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we know there is a problem that requires decisive action.

To confront our nation’s education challenges we must be bold and we must be honest. Only by openly discussing our schools’ weaknesses can we begin to enact reform and build new strengths.

In many instances, we have seen principals and districts embrace the new spirit of accountability and achievement, embodied by No Child Left Behind. In Oregon, for instance, when several neighborhood schools were listed as in need of improvement, the principals gathered together with parents and presented a clear plan for action showing exactly what they will do to improve achievement.

Such leaders understand that change begins with accepting the truth—the truth that we can do better. Indeed, as studies of effective management and leadership show: encouraging excellence begins with attracting the right people as well as facing harsh realities.

Unfortunately, some states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the low performance of their schools. And a few others are discussing how they can ratchet down their standards in order to remove schools from their lists of low performers. Sadly, a small number of persons have suggested reducing standards for defining “proficiency” in order to artificially present the facts. This is not worthy of a great country. I hope these individuals will rethink their approach for the benefit of the students in your states.

The law is meant to spur improvement, encourage reform, and inspire new initiatives so that every boy and girl learns.

Thus, it is nothing less than shameful that some defenders of the status quo are trying to hide the performance of underachieving schools in order to shield parents from reality.

Not only is this political tactic an embarrassment, it undermines the public’s trust in education as a cornerstone of freedom. In order to ensure authentic school reform, our nation must raise the bar of expectations. Every child can learn. Every child must learn. And thanks to this bipartisan law, every child will learn.

Those who play semantic games or try to tinker with state numbers to lock out parents and the public, stand in the way of progress and reform. They are the enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity. They are apologists for failure. And they will not succeed.

Right now, the challenge for state officials is to ask which schools are improving, how to emulate their success, and to believe that reform isn’t just possible; it is inevitable. The American people demand it.

Once parents discover that children in their local schools are not learning as well as they could, they will demand results—no matter how much one state tries to buck accountability.

As a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, I understand the promise and peril of improving schools. It takes courage to confront the forces of bureaucracy, regulation, and special interests that try to cripple even the most sincere efforts to increase achievement and accountability.

Fortunately, there are schools and reform leaders across our nation who have shown how quickly effective leadership can transform student achievement and how swiftly success can sweep through a school. With a dedicated focus on accountability and achievement, any school that needs improvement can create a new culture of learning and excellence in just two years or less.

The good news is that we know what works: scientifically proven methods, aligned standards, assessments, and instruction, school and district leadership focused on student learning, accountability for results, and highly qualified teachers will improve achievement and bring success.

Admittedly, our nation’s commitment—to teach every child—is ambitious. But we have the tools. And we have the know-how. Where we face a real challenge is in generating the will to see this vision through.

Americans agree that we need higher standards and higher expectations to press our schools to new successes. It is also why President Bush and Congress want to build a world-class teaching corps, so that every school and state has the chance to perform well.

Inside the classroom, nothing is more important than a teacher who has mastered his or her subject. That’s why the law supports finding and recruiting teachers who have the content knowledge and the life experiences to teach confidently and effectively. Our nation needs its most inspiring and dynamic citizens to teach the next generation.

By providing for alternative routes to the classroom, our schools can supplement their faculties with engineers and programmers, nurses and researchers, soldiers and scientists, who are willing to step forward to help children learn. Although some critics continue to attack aspects of the law and some naysayers have even convinced themselves that some children are too poor or too different—looking to learn, we know they are wrong.

Many of you have seen real reform in action because you have personally pressed reform forward. We share the belief that our efforts to improve achievement for all children will succeed if applied openly, honestly, and resolutely.

For those who have embraced the challenge, I thank you. The President, Congress and the American public believe that every child can learn and every school can improve, if we work toward that end as a people united.

Our nation’s schools are up to this task. They will find a way to ensure every child gets the kind of education that opens the doors of opportunity, provides the skills to succeed, and preserves the precious freedom of our nation.

In closing, let me reiterate this Department’s full commitment to forge a working partnership between the federal government and every state to get the job done. America’s children are counting on us.

Sincerely,

Rod Paige