Education Reform: Pass or Fail?

As No Child Left Behind comes due for reauthorization, questions remain about whether it really helps children learn

Adam Doster

Can bureaucrats craft education policy that benefits students?

The Cerveny Middle School in Northwest Detroit looks like any other aging public school in a depressed urban area. The ominous brick structure is checkered with Cold War-era bomb shelter signs, the linoleum tile floors are scuffed from years of foot traffic and a busted clock rests on a hallway wall in dire need of a paint job. 

But one classroom on the second floor is markedly different. A Malcolm X quotation – I never felt free until I began to read” – lines the outer wall, and Gary Paulsen’s teenage classic Hatchet leans against the chalkboard alongside a biography of Che Guevara. When the bell rings, a seventh grade language arts class enters the room and begins an orderly, active and sophisticated discussion about the effects of depopulation on their once-enormous city. Welcome to English class with Nate Walker.

Walker, 26, in his fourth year as English teacher, basketball coach and drama director at Cerveny, is tired of the status quo in education. Instead of using customary textbooks or worksheets, he applies state and federal standards to materials and activities that he crafts with his students’ interests in mind. During a recent lesson on expository essays, Walker challenged his students to develop a research question, thesis statement and supporting arguments about truancy in the Detroit Public Schools. He then let them debate. I give [the students] a lot of freedom to explore their own ideas,” he says. Everyone has a voice. It’s interactive.”

By learning reading through dialogue and communication, Walker’s students develop analytic abilities while simultaneously cultivating the skills to pass any test thrown their way. They also behave and enjoy themselves; something that Walker insists wasn’t always the case. I work really hard to try and build a positive learning environment,” says Walker, a classroom that people want to come to.” After witnessing Walker in action for two hours, it is clear that he understands and embraces the complexities of educating children. The same cannot be said about leaders in Washington.

Reauthorization on the horizon

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), his most significant domestic policy initiative. Over the last five years, this sweeping legislation transformed K-12 education, generating supporters and detractors in the process. This year, NCLB is up for reauhtorization, amid growing concerns that the bill is not achieving its goals. The resulting debate will galvanize citizens and policymakers concerned with the state of American education.

Introduced in early 2001, NCLB benefited from a groundswell of national unity following 9/11. Congress passed it in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Many of NCLB’s major tenets were derived from school reform efforts instituted in Texas when Bush was governor, but prominent Democrats Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) were instrumental in revising the original draft.

All three of these players have made it clear that they will work toward reauthorization. With Democrats now in control of Congress, Miller has assumed chairmanship of the newly renamed House Committee on Education and Labor, and Kennedy heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, meaning both will set the agenda in their respective chambers. Both also claim that reauthorization of NCLB is a high priority. Likewise, in his recent State of the Union address, Bush said that NCLB has worked for America’s children – and I ask Congress to reauthorize this good law.” To improve NCLB’s public image, the administration recently unveiled a snazzy American flag-themed logo for the legislation. 

Yet with renewal right around the corner, many Americans remain unclear about what NCLB does. According to a poll conducted in the fall of 2005 by Phi Delta Kappa/​Gallup, 54 percent of parents with children in public schools said they knew little or nothing about the law. That’s not surprising – teasing out the key points of the 670-page bill can be overwhelming. Essentially, NCLB reauthorizes previous federal education mandates in hopes of improving the performance of all K-12 students, thereby eradicating what Bush has called the soft bigotry of low expectations.” To do this, the law relies on a strict accountability system, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

AYP divides students into subgroups – all ethnic/​racial groups present in the school, low-income students, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency – and requires that each subgroup in a school reach state-determined levels of proficiency on standardized tests in math and reading. If one subgroup fails, the entire school fails. By the 2013-2014 school year, the law will require all states to set their levels of proficiency at 100 percent. 

For schools that fail, NCLB institutes a series of sanctions and remedies that force schools to improve and at the same time gives students attending low-performing institutions a series of options. After two years of failure, schools are deemed in need of improvement,” meaning that school administrators must devise a two-year improvement plan following strict peer-reviewed guidelines and that students must be allowed to transfer to another school in the district or a nearby charter school. A third year requires the offering of supplemental services like tutoring, a fourth year triggers corrective action” – such as changes in staff and curriculum and the extension of the school day or year – and a fifth year requires the complete restructuring of the school, which in many cases means the opening of a charter school in its place. 

In the case of Cerveny, the school was reconstituted after failing to meet AYP for five straight years. However, its performance plan left some hiring responsibilities to the principal, a unique stipulation that Walker says was critical to the school’s recent improvement. Cerveny maintained some local autonomy and teacher stability, and students passed their reading proficiency levels for the first time last year. 

NCLB flaws and motives

Although some argue that it’s too early to pass judgment, recent evidence suggests that the bill has fallen short of its lofty goals, leaving parents, educators and legislators discontented. Three major studies released in November reported persistent achievement gaps between students of different racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. According to the Northwest Evaluation Association, an Oregon nonprofit testing organization that studied the results of 500,000 reading and math tests administered in 24 states between 2004 and 2005, pupils attending poor schools achieved less growth than those attending rich schools for each subgroup at every grade level. It found the same variance between students of color and white students. The Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit assessment development and research organization, reported similar findings; in 2005 black students scored considerably lower than white students in math, science and reading. And a study by the Policy Analysis for California Education found that achievement gaps in California actually widened over the past five years, which runs counter to Bush’s insistence that the law is successfully addressing educational discrepancies. 

Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the education policy think tank Education Sector and a former assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy, sees these disparities as fundamentally unjust. What’s dehumanizing is that the odds of outcome are better off if you are rich and dumb than if you are poor and smart,” he says. 

Upset with the lack of progress, citizens outside of Washington have leveled more systemic criticisms at the law. Many argue that high-stakes testing is poor motivation for struggling students. In her book In Defense of Education: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide, Elaine Garan asks, Can’t we reasonably assume that high-stakes, high-pressure testing, the threat of failure, and all the time wasted on test preparation are turnoffs rather than incentives?” Critics also contend that by elevating the importance of test results, teachers must narrow their curriculums and exclude crucial but non-tested subjects like history, art, foreign language, music and physical education. 

The most damning criticism of the law is aimed at its crude and unrealistic proficiency goals. By using one annual test score as a measurement of attainment, AYP focuses on achievement to the exclusion of assessing student growth. We’re placing the emphasis on the product of the educational process instead of the process [of learning] itself,” says Walker. In October 2004, a coalition of national educational, civil rights and religious groups produced a Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB” that has since gathered more than 100 signatories. Their first recommendation was to replace the law’s arbitrary proficient targets with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools.” 

It is the unreasonable proficiency goals that have convinced many that the hidden agenda of NCLB is to sacrifice the public education system in the name of profit, either through the development of expensive and privately produced supplementary education materials or the eventual privatization of schools. NCLB is a dollars game and it needs to be understood on that level,” says Walker. It has nothing to do with the children – it has to do with making people rich.” 

Private tutoring, for example, has witnessed explosive growth since the law’s inception. ThinkEquity Partners, a San Francisco-based investment bank, estimates that public schools will funnel more than $900 million dollars to private tutors in 2006-2007, up from $300 million in 2003-2004. Textbook publishers are exacting similarly huge profits. McGraw Hill, which publishes the materials for NCLB’s Reading First program, cited in its Quarterly Report that sales in the Elementary and High School market were critical to their frequent double-digit growth in earnings per share (17.6 percent in the second quarter of 2006). 

The Bush administration has also provided the opposition plenty of ammunition. Ignite Learning, a company owned by the president’s brother Neil and backed financially by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talai, developed a system last year named COW, or curriculum on wheels.” COW is a high-tech instruction aide for teachers that expects to produce $5 million dollars in revenue in 2006, according to BusinessWeek. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, former First Lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with explicit directions that it be spent only on educational software produced by, you guessed it, Ignite Learning. 

Perhaps most devastating, NCLB has had a chilling impact on discussions about alternative educational philosophies and techniques. To educate American children effectively, Walker says policymakers and educators alike must break from the long-accepted U.S. pedagogical framework and re-envision the role of education in the 21st century.

Lawmakers crafted NCLB using an outdated understanding of the economy. The industrial economy of the 20th century required obedience and rapid cognition, skills that tests cultivate sufficiently. Now, as semi-skilled labor disappears – the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21.2 percent increase in professional occupations from 2004-2014 and a one percent decrease in production employment – command-and-control education methods are training students for non-existent jobs. 

Instead, educators should focus on fostering the growth of critical thought in order to prepare students for a life of productive citizenship. Because that struggling kid is going to be put into the world in six or seven years, we need to advocate education for citizenship if we really want any hope,” Walker says. Walker not only uses dialogue to encourage students’ independent-thinking skills, but also plans direct-action projects that link class material with the student’s immediate surroundings. For example, two years ago, after reading a story about segregation and the lack of quality educational resources black students receive, Walker’s students painted the lockers in their hallway to improve their physical environment. Though this was a relatively small act, advocates ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs have long argued that such praxis-based projects encourage civic engagement by making children aware that they are social agents, capable of redefining and revitalizing their schools and neighborhoods.

The politics of renewal

The lack of progress under NCLB, coupled with the new political landscape of the 110th Congress, will likely complicate the reauthorization process. Many recently elected Democrats, who did not participate in the construction of the law, bemoaned NCLB throughout their campaigns. 

Tim Walz, a high school geography teacher and the newly elected representative of Minnesota’s 1st District, called the bill an uneven, bureaucratic nightmare [that] harms the students and schools who need it most.” Meanwhile, Republican legislators are increasingly voicing their displeasure about the greater federalism that NCLB mandates. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) recently told an audience at the Heritage Foundation, You can’t have quality development with a top-down approach. It’s time to change the way we’re thinking about [NCLB] because it’s not working.”

NCLB is not just a straight left-right, Republicans and Democrats issue,” says Rotherham. There are real intra-party disagreements about the legislation, which means it is a less likely candidate to get done in this environment.”

On Jan. 24, the administration attempted to placate critics like DeMint when it released Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening NCLB,” which largely emphasized the need for increased school choice and local control. But Democrats, including Kennedy and Miller, immediately called it a non-starter.

Even with these divisions, complete repeal seems unlikely; the political will and the power of the authors will not allow for a comprehensive reinterpretation of the federal government’s role in education. For Bush, NCLB is the only substantial bipartisan domestic policy he has passed in six years, so it is important for both his legacy and his attempts to pass favored legislation through the new Congress. 

Conversely, Kennedy and Miller, steadfast supporters of testing and accountability, believe that the law is well intentioned, just poorly executed. The two men will likely focus the debate in Washington on ways to fine-tune the bill. Measures should include increasing funding to reach the full amount initially promised during authorization and putting more qualified teachers in the classroom. With these political realities, Rotherham believes that full reauthorization – with only limited changes – will happen, but not until after the next presidential election.

In the meantime, legislators must take additional steps to fulfill the promises guaranteed by NCLB. Emphasis should be placed on the other major section of the bill, the Highly Qualified Teacher Provision (HQT). Authored primarily by Miller, HQT requires that all children be taught by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and state-certification (among other requirements) in core academic subjects like English, reading, science and math. Initially, the provision wasn’t taken seriously in Washington – zero states passed the first deadline and no legitimate sanctions were ever crafted, so a one-year extension was granted. The Bush Administration championed a $100 million dollar teacher incentive, but that’s like throwing a bucket of water into the ocean,” says Rotherman. To catch up, districts are now taking rash and ineffective steps. In Baltimore, classroom assistants deemed highly-qualified were forced to transfer to high-poverty schools in the middle of the year.

Even HQT is not without its opponents. Aaron Tang, co-director of Our Education, a youth organizing organization, believes HQT fails to differentiate between qualified and quality teachers. Having a few extra pieces of paper doesn’t guarantee that a person can educate or inspire students,” Tang says. He would like to see the government explore modes of alternative certification, such as the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program, which awards mid-career professionals, recent college graduates and retirees fellowships to teach in New York City’s underperforming and understaffed schools. In just six years, the program has placed 7,500 fellows in the nation’s largest district, totaling almost 10 percent of the entire system. 

By reducing the barriers to entry, NYCTF and similar programs allow eager college graduates or people in related fields, such as doctors or scientists, the chance to provide a welcome infusion of human capital. Walker himself was a sociology major who took advantage of alternative certification through the Teach for America program. Without the aid of alternatively certified teachers like Walker, it seems unlikely that Cerveny would have passed its reading tests in 2006.

But education reform can’t be viewed in a vacuum. Studies show that test-score discrepancies appear as early as kindergarten, proving that factors outside of schools largely contribute to gaps in achievement. If Congress is serious about leaving no child behind, it must implement measures to reduce family and youth poverty, such as eradicating gaps in health care coverage and raising stagnating wages for Americans who work long hours away from their children. 

When Walker asked his students to produce supporting arguments about why Detroit schools had high truancy rates, the 20 seventh graders in his class didn’t hesitate: Kids aren’t taught anything of value; it can be embarrassing to try and catch up if a student is pegged as struggling; and students lack support from their parents, teachers and peers. 

More support from legislators wouldn’t hurt either.

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Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.
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