Commentary: No Child: Can It Make The Grade?

Consensus on the act is fading, but it can be saved

The No Child Left Behind Act that cleared Congress in a bipartisan landslide in late 2001 is the most ambitious school reform effort in at least a generation. President Bush champions it as his signature social policy achievement. And business and civil rights groups alike have cheered its historic goals: to give every child in America a "highly qualified teacher" by 2006, and to ensure that all students achieve "proficiency" in core subjects by 2014.

Now the national consensus is beginning to crack. On Feb. 10, the solidly Republican Utah House voted to bar the use of local money to comply with No Child. A few weeks earlier, the GOP-dominated Virginia House of Delegates voted 98 to 1 to ask Congress for a waiver from the law, which it branded as "the most sweeping intrusion into local control of education in the history of the U.S." Many education groups worry that the law could undermine support for public schools, says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Assn.

The mounting discord is sure to make No Child a hot issue in the Presidential campaign. Democrats are making hay by attacking the law, while the Administration has become increasingly defensive about complaints that it's an underfunded federal mandate. But whatever the outcome in November, there's growing pressure to open up the law and rewrite some of it, says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a group of CEOs and state governors that supports the law's basic approach.

That's probably the best way to capitalize on No Child's good intentions. Certainly, nearly everyone agrees with its basic aim, to use testing to shine a light on schools that aren't delivering a quality education -- and insist that the problems be fixed. But after the first two years, it has become clear that the practical difficulties of doing so require some adjustments. "There are good parts of the act, so we don't want to repeal it," says Gary M. Ratner, executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools Inc., a reform group in suburban Washington. "But making it work will require major changes."

For one thing, the law's timetable is simply unrealistic, especially for the children who need the most help. It should be altered so that schools aren't designated as failing if they're making progress with subgroups such as minority, poor, and special-education kids. The added flexibility would make it easier to address the wildly varying standards of success designed by each state. States such as Colorado are setting theirs low to avoid failure, while those like South Carolina, with high standards, face stringent sanctions if too few students pass their tests. National standards may be anathema to local educators, but some sort of minimum benchmarking across the country is the most logical approach. The issue of teachers' pay also needs some aggressive reform. To staff classes with qualified teachers, schools should take a more market-based approach and pay more for those in the highest demand, such as science instructors.

Although No Child has run into a buzzsaw at local levels, the law's overall purpose is undisputed: to close the yawning gaps that plague U.S. education. After some two decades of reform, only 29% of the nation's eighth-graders are proficient in math and just 32% read at their grade level, according to the 2003 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often known as the nation's report card. NAEP shows clearly that millions are indeed being left behind. By age 17, minority students are four years behind their white counterparts. Moreover, the most disadvantaged children are stuck with some of the worst teachers. More than half of those teaching 7th- to 12th-grade math in poor schools don't have a major or minor in math, according to Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education professor.

To accelerate change, No Child requires states to test third- to eighth-grade children in math and reading yearly and once in high school. They must then issue report cards on every school, assessing the performance of all students and of subgroups such as low-income, minority, and special-ed students.

RAISING THE BAR. Sounds good on paper, but so far just 20 states have all the required tests in place, according to a January study issued by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group. Massachusetts, for one, ultimately managed to get 95% of the class of 2003 to pass a test it now requires to graduate from high school, even though many students initially failed it. But other states are running into major hurdles.

For starters, an unrealistically high number of schools are being classified as failing. No Child requires that schools make "adequate yearly progress" toward moving 100% of students to proficiency. But schools can fail if just one subgroup, such as third-grade special-ed kids, fails. Already, more than 25,000 schools, 28% of the total, are failing, according to the Center on Education Policy. Even prestigious high schools in tony Greenwich and Fairfield, Conn., flunked last year because they didn't get the needed 95% of students to take the exam.

The failure rate will only climb as states keep raising the bar to meet the 2014 deadline. This year, Ohio is requiring just 52% of students to be proficient in reading and 42% in math. But considering that only one-third of the state's black students are proficient in math, how likely is it to get to 100% in 10 years? With minorities starting off so far behind, states with more minorities and more integrated schools will have the highest failure rates, predicts Thomas J. Kane, professor of policy studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

FINANCIAL BURDEN. Paradoxically, the unrealistic standards causing high failure rates are accompanied by too much flexibility from Washington in defining what students must know to be proficient. In Texas, for example, more than 80% of fourth-graders scored as proficient on the state reading test, even though only about 30% met the NAEP standard. Yet No Child often ends up punishing states with high standards. Fully 62% of schools in South Carolina fell short of the required progress last year, which could lead to lost federal funds, while just 13% of Texas schools failed to do so. If the law isn't changed, experts predict, states with high standards will have little choice but to lower them to look better.

No Child's demands also threaten to overburden states financially. The law requires low-performing schools to offer free tutoring and school choice. And they face restructuring if they don't improve in five years. But Michigan officials are already overwhelmed by the 112 failing schools targeted for restructuring. "Most urban high schools have more staff than I do," complains Michigan schools superintendent Thomas D. Watkins, who is adopting a triage approach to focus on just some of the very worst schools.

True, federal spending on K-12 education has climbed by more than a third under Bush. But with state and local governments still footing more than 90% of the $480 billion tab for K-12 education, the $8 billion hike in federal outlays translates into less than a 2% increase in total spending. Even that has been partly offset by education cuts in fiscally troubled states. "There's a real disconnect in the idea that you can leverage fundamental change with such a marginal amount of money," says David L. Shreve, head of the education committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nor does the law go far enough to correct the funding inequities among rich and poor districts within a state that help perpetuate the achievement gaps.

Despite all its flaws, the education law could do a lot once it's improved. Getting serious about qualified instructors could be next on the reform agenda. The decades-old system of paying all teachers in lockstep based on seniority should be tossed out, argues a new report by the Teaching Commission, a group of educators and business executives headed by ex-IBM (IBM ) Chairman Louis V. Gerstner. The group recommends that instead, teachers should be paid more for serving in tough inner-city schools or for teaching subjects in demand like math and science. Pay should also reflect performance, so that teachers who raise student achievement beyond expectations are rewarded. Tennessee is already adopting a "value-added" measure.

An even bolder move would be to establish a set of national standards for what students should know. Many states would oppose that as a federal intrusion into state affairs. "But in our mobile society, in which people regularly move from state to state, and in which we all must compete in a global economy, the logic is compelling," says Achieve's Cohen.

This would be easier if No Child's one-size-fits-all mandates better reflected reality. A rural state like Montana has 200 school districts with fewer than 50 students. It makes no sense for each to have five science teachers, each of whom has majored in different sciences, says Montana Superintendent Linda McCulloch.

Similarly, educators want the law to take into account whether a school is raising up disadvantaged subgroups, even if they don't all reach proficiency on deadline. The Administration recently moved in this direction by relaxing criteria for how soon children with limited English must pass state tests. But more flexibility is needed.

More money is needed, too. The Teaching Commission's ideas on pay could run $30 billion a year. But if lawmakers are serious about putting a qualified teacher in every classroom, there may not be another way. Similarly, educators can't hope to lift up low-income and special-education students without addressing the underlying funding inequities.

The law was a great start. Now that lawmakers can see its shortcomings, they need to act. The worst that could happen is that No Child is left unchanged, blowing apart the consensus on reform -- and leaving behind yet another generation.

By William C. Symonds

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