Learning Leadership column, July/August edition of eSchool News—The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), renamed under its last reiteration as No Child Left Behind, was due for reauthorization three years ago. NCLB, as it is popularly referred to, brought a new level of federal intrusion into local school district affairs. A surprising development, given that the law was spearheaded by a conservative Republican administration that, in previous years, had threatened to dissolve the U.S. Department of Education and take the federal government out of the business of education.
In the 10 years that NCLB has been in place, the law has been praised and cursed. It was originally praised for its intent to leave no child behind—to close the widening achievement gap that exists between the haves and have-nots. Whereas in the past, school systems reported their performance using the statistical mean, NCLB required districts to disaggregate their data and report the performance of categories of students by race, poverty level, language dominance, and special needs. This uncovered a very different performance profile. Districts that in the past prided themselves on the mean performance of all of their students found themselves apologizing for the poor performance of sub-categories previously hidden in the averages. That was a good thing.
Unfortunately, the makers of the law got carried away with their metrics as they further developed the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Under that rubric, school districts had to specify increasing levels of academic achievement that eventually would lead to all children meeting their state’s level of required performance by 2014. Furthermore, each year, each sub-category of students in each school would be required to meet the established performance benchmark or be labeled as having failed to achieve AYP. If one sub-category in one school failed to achieve AYP, the entire school would be deemed to have failed AYP. If a school in a district failed to achieve AYP, the entire district was deemed to have failed AYP.
Poor academic achievement was not the only means of failing to make AYP. Every sub-category has an established n, which is the minimum number of students in that category who must take the test for the school to be in compliance. If the school falls one student short of the n, the school does not make AYP. In the initial years of NCLB, many communities were bewildered by the surprising development that their beloved neighborhood school with the outstanding academic reputation had failed to make AYP and was now considered a “failing” school. Very often this happened not because of academic failure, but because of absenteeism on the day of the test.
NCLB has another major flaw. Each state was left to its own devices in setting standards and establishing its assessment vehicle. Consequently, there is a huge disparity between state performances when compared to a national benchmark such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). This development is what has caused Education Secretary Arne Duncan to speak to the duplicity that some state education systems have perpetrated on the American public. By lowering the cut points required to pass state tests, many states show an impressive percentage of their students performing above the required standard—but that performance does not parallel the results obtained by those states on the NAEP.
These apparent flaws in NCLB have led to the Common Core Standards initiative and the attempt to establish one national, if not federal, set of academic standards. Similarly, the federal government has invested heavily in two projects that are working to develop assessments that will measure students’ progress toward meeting the common standards. A national benchmark and a national assessment would be the only way to evade the disparity that currently exists between state performances. The Common Core Standards also could improve our standing in international tests, as we now compete against nations that generally have a national curriculum—while we have 50.
We also can blame the flaws in NCLB’s system of accountability for the current public school bashing so prevalent in our country. Recently, Secretary Duncan testified before a Congressional committee and stated that, with NCLB running its course, more than 80 percent of the schools in America will be failing to meet AYP this coming school year. This supports the general consensus held by the American public that our schools are failing … but that is not the case. As we state in our “95/5 Dilemma” blog, America’s public education system is the best that it has ever been. The five percent of our schools that are dysfunctional are defining the 95 percent of our schools that are not. But the growing number of schools failing to make AYP, not because of a lack of academic achievement but because of flaws in the accountability model, adds to the perception of general failure.
For these reasons and many others, we have called upon Congress and the administration to reauthorize ESEA as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that has not happened—and there is no indication that it will happen. The administration and the Democrats want to reauthorize ESEA in one fell swoop. The administration’s “Blueprint” set the parameters for that process two years ago. The Republicans, however, talk about reauthorizing in “chunks.” The House education committee recently put forth its first chunk, a piece of legislation that attempts to streamline the law by cutting in half the number of programs under ESEA.
While we see no resolution to the ESEA stalemate, we urge Secretary Duncan to use his regulatory powers to suspend any additional sanctions under the current AYP requirements prior to the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. No new school should be labeled as “In Need of Improvement” or subject to new or additional sanctions. We propose this because our schools are overwhelmed by laws and regulatory mandates that have been heaped upon them by NCLB and now, most recently, by the data requirements imposed by states’ acceptance of federal stimulus funds. In spite of the harsh economic reality facing our schools today, they are being forced to do much more with much less.
By September 30 of this year, school districts will have had to submit to their state educational agencies an unprecedented amount of data never before required of them, such as student transcript information—including courses completed, grades earned, and the teachers who taught those courses and assigned the grades. Aside from the huge issues of costs, data reliability, and privacy rights, many schools do not have the technology in place to collect the data—and many will be forced to be out of compliance and face the threat of having federal funds withheld. In the meantime, schools will be using precious resources, both in time and money, trying to meet the standards.
The National School Boards Association and AASA have launched a petition to the U.S. Department of Education and Congress asking for regulatory relief. The petition is available for reading and signing at:
We urge school leaders who agree with this position to help us make our voices heard.
Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
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