Depending on where you stand — outside a school or inside — No Child Left Behind either pushed public education to new heights or kicked it to the curb.
Used by President George W. Bush as a cattle prod for greater student achievement, the 2001 law ramped up the federal role in schools and spawned a new lexicon of education acronyms, from AYP (adequate yearly progress) to NI (needs improvement).
The landmark legislation had standardized testing as its engine, causing critics to charge that the law reduced U.S. classrooms into “drill-and-kill” labs where worksheets and practice exams edged out science fairs and hands-on learning. The unrelenting pressure to raise test scores caused educators in some schools, including many in Atlanta, to resort to cheating to mask disappointing AYP results.
Despite its Republican pedigree, a group of GOP senators, including Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, announced a quartet of bills last week that will essentially disassemble the most contentious and demanding provisions of No Child left Behind, including AYP. In a media conference-call, Isakson said the goal was to ease federal mandates over all but the lowest-achieving 5 percent of American schools. Isakson and fellow senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee characterized the bills as a restoration of state and local control of schools.
Rather than the federal government acting as a national school board and decreeing whether schools made adequate progress, the states would become the judge and jury.
“The principle effect of the bill for the nation’s 100,000 public schools is to get out from federal mandates on deciding which schools are succeeding or failing,” said Alexander. “A lot has happened in the last 10 years. It is time to transfer responsibility back to the states and cities.”
But are flexibility and freedom simply a return to the see-no-evil past?
At the time that Congress passed No Child Left Behind, many schools allowed limited-English- proficient children, poor kids and students with disabilities to languish in the back row. Systems concealed these historically low-achieving clusters by releasing only average performance scores for schools.
While some schools appeared high-achieving, often they were only succeeding with the children who arrived in classes well ahead of the curve. No Child Left Behind pulled off the cloak off mean average scores.
“When left to their own devices, states have a long, well-documented history of aiming far too low and shortchanging the schools that serve our most vulnerable children. It’s because of that history that Congress sought to hold states accountable for results in the first place,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for low-income students,
In a concession to local control, No Child permitted states to set their own improvement targets. “More than half of the states chose to set their annual target at any progress, meaning that even a bump from 50.0 percent to 50.1 percent was acceptable,” said Wilkins.
The bar was set so low that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan complained about a dumbing- down of standards, saying, “We’ve seen a race to the bottom. We have been lying to children and lying to families in telling them they are prepared for college and careers when, in fact, they are nowhere near ready.”
But Isakson and Alexander counter that 44 states, including Georgia and Tennessee, have demonstrated a commitment to enhanced student learning by adopting the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative to set a purportedly higher and more relevant bar for what students should know.
As to weakening accountability by ceding it to states, Isakson said the proposed GOP changes still require states to “keep in place all testing, disaggregation of data and reporting. The best enforcement mechanisms are transparency and reporting.”
Under the GOP scenario, the community will provide the accountability, demanding change if school data reveal under-served students.
But will the publication of data and transparency alone lead to improvement without any real sanctions?
Wilkins doesn’t think so, saying, “We’ve had nutritional labels on food for decades, yet obesity rates in America are going up, not down.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog