As the first major update to the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) draws near, supporters and opponents of the law are staking out their positions on its various measures. The result of these debates will determine how schools must operate going forward. And if a recent survey is to be believed, there is a significant disparity in how the public, and the Bush administration, view the law.

In an interview with reporters on Aug. 30, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said NCLB is close to perfect and needs little change. That contrasts sharply with the results of a new Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll, showing only three in 10 people have a favorable opinion of the law–and just 26 percent say it is helping public schools.

“I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It’s 99.9 percent pure or something,” Spellings told reporters. “There’s not much needed in the way of change.”

Spellings’ comments signal what amounts to the Bush administration’s starting position as the law comes up for renewal. That is scheduled to happen as soon as next year.

It is unsurprising that Spellings strongly supports the law. She helped craft it as President Bush’s domestic policy chief and now enforces it as the top education official.

Yet her view that the law needs little change is notable, because it differs so sharply from others with a stake–including many teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers.

Already, the House education committee is holding hearings on how to improve the law. So is a prominent bipartisan commission, which is touring the nation to gather opinions.

More than 80 organizations have signed a statement urging fundamental changes, in areas such as how student progress is measured and how schools are penalized when they fall short. And the National Conference of State Legislatures has given the law a scathing rebuke.

“You cannot ignore reality,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country. “The reality is that poll after poll speaks to the concerns that people have. They are not arguing with the goals. They are not arguing with accountability. But they say something needs to be done to fix this law.”

In the latest of these polls–the 38th annual “Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” released Aug. 22–nearly six in 10 Americans said they believe NCLB has had no effect on the nation’s schools or has actually harmed them.

“This finding is significant and disturbing, given that the nation’s schools are spending virtually all of their available money and resources on an effort to meet the demands of this law,” said Lowell Rose, co-author of the survey.

The PDK/Gallup poll finds there is widespread support for the law’s goals–closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers, and improving educational outcomes for all students–but broad disagreement with its specific strategies.

When asked whether testing students in only English and math, as currently required by NCLB, can give a fair picture of a school, 81 percent of the public say no–and 78 percent said they are worried the law’s focus on these two subjects will mean less emphasis on other subjects. In addition, two-thirds of those surveyed said they oppose measuring school success by the percentage of students passing a single statewide test, while 81 percent said they prefer measuring the improvement students make during the year.

Signed by President Bush in 2002, the law is widely considered the most significant federal education act since Congress approved its original version in 1965.

It aims to ensure that all children can read and do math at grade level by 2014, an aspiration that has placed unprecedented demands on schools. The law requires states to increase testing, raise teacher quality, and give more attention to minority children.

Poor schools that receive federal Title I aid but don’t make enough progress face a series of escalating consequences. But critics of the law say too many of these consequences divert valuable resources from the schools that need them most–and, according to the PDK/Gallup poll, the public seems to agree.

When asked where policy makers should focus efforts to improve education, 71 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer improvement to come through the existing public school system, rather than through an alternative system.

Sixty percent of respondents said they oppose the use of public funds for children to attend private schools; 80 percent said they’d prefer that students who attend schools that fail to meet NCLB performance requirements receive help in their own schools, rather than offers to transfer to another school; and 69 percent opposed contracting out to private companies the operation of local school systems.

The poll’s results “should send a clear message to those interested in improving our schools that change proposals should be built on the assumption that the people like the schools they have,” Rose said. “Proposals based on the assumption that [public] schools are failing are unlikely to gain the public support needed to make them effective.”

Spellings has made her mark as education secretary by enforcing the law with flexibility.

In areas such as tutoring and testing, she has approved experiments to see what might work better–an approach that has won her praise.

“I think it would be foolhardy for me to sit up here and just say we’re not going to react to anything that we’re learning over time,” she said in her Aug. 30 interview with reporters at the Education Department.

Spellings said her job is to present Congress with good data to help lawmakers do their job. She said she is open-minded about ways to improve the law.

But when asked if she meant the law is truly “99.9 percent” close to working properly, she said, “I think it is that close.”

She pointed as much to attitudes as test scores.

Now, she said, states and schools are debating how better to help children with limited English skills and students with disabilities.

“Just the level of sophistication of the conversation around these issues is, to me, the big news out of No Child Left Behind,” she added.

William Bushaw, executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, an association of education professionals that has been advocating for high-quality education for all students since 1906, took a different view.

“The views expressed in this year’s PDK/Gallup poll should serve as a wake-up call to our nation’s policy makers as they begin the process of reauthorizing NCLB in 2007,” he said. “The public rejects the punitive approach found in NCLB, favors a broad curriculum, prefers more appropriate measures of school performance than a single high-stakes test, and supports efforts targeted at helping our most vulnerable students.”

Links:

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

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

Phi Delta Kappa International
http://www.pdkintl.org

PDK/Gallup poll results
http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kpollpdf.htm