Custom Search

Thursday, August 25, 2011

No Child Left Behind Created Huge Racial Academic Achievement Gap: Obama Offers Waivers

Overriding a Key Education Law

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced that he will unilaterally override the centerpiece requirement of the No Child Left Behind school accountability law, that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Mr. Duncan told reporters that he was acting because Congress had failed to rewrite the Bush-era law, which he called a “slow-motion train wreck.” He is waiving the law’s proficiency requirements for states that have adopted their own testing and accountability programs and are making other strides toward better schools, he said.

The administration’s plan amounts to the most sweeping use of executive authority to rewrite federal education law since Washington expanded its involvement in education in the 1960s.

Conservatives said it could inflame relations with Republicans in the House who want to reduce, not expand, the federal footprint in education. But Mr. Duncan and White House officials described their plan as offering crucial relief to state and local educators as the No Child law, which President George W. Bush signed in 2002, comes into increasing conflict with more recent efforts to raise academic standards.

The law made its focus the use of standardized test scores in schools, particularly those serving minority students.

“I can’t overemphasize how loud the outcry is for us to do something right now,” Mr. Duncan told reporters on Friday in a conference call that he said could not be reported until midnight Sunday.

Melody Barnes, director of President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, who joined Mr. Duncan in the announcement, said that all states would be encouraged to apply for waivers from the law’s accountability provisions, but that only states the administration believed were carrying out ambitious school improvement initiatives would get them.

“This is not a pass on accountability,” Ms. Barnes said. “There will be a high bar for states seeking flexibility within the law.”

Under the current law, every school is given the equivalent of a pass-fail report card each year, an evaluation that administration officials say fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve, and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.

About 38,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools fell short of their test-score targets under the federal law last year, and Mr. Duncan has predicted that number would rise to 80,000 this year.

Skeptics said Mr. Duncan’s predictions were exaggerated, but a huge number of schools are falling short under No Child’s school rating system. Eighty-nine percent of Florida’s public schools, for instance, missed federal testing targets, although 58 percent of Florida schools earned an A under the state’s own well-regarded grading system.

When Mr. Duncan sketched an outline of the administration’s waiver plan in June, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, demanded that Mr. Duncan show by what legal authority he would override the federal law. Mr. Duncan responded by citing provisions of the No Child law itself that give the education secretary broad waiver powers.

On Friday, Mr. Kline said in a statement, “I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine” efforts by Congress to rewrite the law.

Mr. Kline’s committee has completed three overhaul bills focusing on elimination of federal programs, financial flexibility for states, and charter schools. But the committee has not yet produced bills rewriting the law’s crucial school accountability and teacher effectiveness provisions.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman the Senate education committee, said he understood why Mr. Duncan was pursuing the waiver plan, since “it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything.”

The No Child Left Behind law is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a 1965 law that over the years has become the main federal law on public schools. It has been rewritten in ways that have allowed nearly every president since its original architect, Lyndon B. Johnson, to put his policy stamp on it, usually in the first term. That has eluded President Obama so far, despite his campaign pledges to fix the law’s flaws.

In Friday’s conference call, Mr. Duncan and Ms. Barnes said the Department of Education would issue guidelines next month inviting states to apply for the waivers. For a waiver to be approved, they said, states would need to show that they were adopting higher standards under which high school students were “college- and career-ready” at graduation, were working to improve teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures, were overhauling the lowest-performing schools, and were adopting locally designed school accountability systems to replace No Child’s pass-fail system.

Those requirements match the criteria the administration used last year in picking winning states in its two-stage Race to the Top grant competition. Ms. Barnes said states would not be competing against one another with their waiver applications. But the similarity irked critics.

“It sounds like they’re trying to do a backdoor Round 3 of Race to the Top, and that’s astonishing,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. He called Mr. Duncan’s plan “a dramatically broad reading of executive authority.”

The plan appears likely to gain broad support from state education officials, however. More than a dozen states have already asked the department for changes to their No Child school accountability plans, or are about to do so, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Many states feel that we need major changes in the law, because it’s identifying such an outlandish number of schools that it’s losing credibility,” he said.

The law allowed states to adopt local academic standards and determine their own passing scores on tests after it took effect in 2002. The requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 encouraged lower standards, which make it easier for more students to score as proficient. Since early 2010, however, more than 40 states have agreed to adopt higher standards, and the 2014 deadline is complicating their efforts, Mr. Duncan said.

In Tennessee, for instance, 91 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in math under the state’s old standards, but under new, tougher standards adopted recently, the proportion plummeted to 34 percent.

“The current law serves as a disincentive to higher standards, rather than as an incentive,” Mr. Duncan said.

HECK: Time to leave ‘No Child’ law behind

The time has come to repeal the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. The monstrous bureaucracy that was created by this thousand-page beast is unproductive, mismanaged and an onerous and cumbersome weight on the innovative designs of creative professionals.

Incidentally, for those who might be mistaken, I’m not referring to President Obama’s unconstitutional health care takeover, though I’m all for repeal of that as well. No, the marshy swamp of big-government micromanagement to which I refer is President George W. Bush’s signature law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

For starters, though enacted and championed by a Republican president, this piece of legislation is about as far from conservative policy as you can get. It is a massive intrusion of the federal government into an area (education) that the Constitution gives the feds absolutely no authority over whatsoever. As a general rule of thumb when evaluating a law, if it was authored by the Senate’s “liberal lion,” the late Edward M. Kennedy, and received more votes from House Democrats than Republicans, it’s safe to assume that it’s not overly bathed in conservative ideology.

But more pressing than properly identifying the ideology that spawned it, No Child Left Behind is not working. To those who have studied the 1,100 page law, that comes as no surprise. The policy hinges around a measurement gimmick known as “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).” In order to meet AYP, a school must show that a larger percentage of its students are “proficient” at reading and math than were “proficient” the year before. But after establishing harsh penalties for failure to meet AYP and tying federal education dollars to success, the law allows states to establish their own definitions of what “proficient” means.

It’s not tough to figure out how to beat the system, is it? The lower you set your proficiency bar, the better you look when the results come in. This is exactly what the New York Times described as happening in South Carolina:

“In South Carolina, about 81 percent of elementary and middle schools missed targets in 2008,” they reported. “The state legislature responded by reducing the level of achievement defined as proficient, and the next year the proportion of South Carolina schools missing targets dropped to 41 percent.” In other words, kids are scoring just as bad or worse on tests, but states are demonstrating impressive gains in proficiency.

If that temptation to lower expectations in order to receive more money hasn’t dawned on state lawmakers yet, it soon will. President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan is predicting that more than 80 percent of the country’s schools will fail to meet their AYP this year.

It has become clear that this law accomplishes nothing more than challenging state lawmakers and government bureaucrats to come up with innovative ways to manipulate numbers so that it appears we’re making progress. All the while, more and more children are left behind.

Believe it or not, Mr. Duncan seems to have a grasp on this problem, complaining that the No Child Left Behind law is, “forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don’t work.” Though no one could accuse Mr. Duncan of being on the political right, his observation is exactly why conservatives have long believed in abolishing the Department of Education and returning pedagogical decisions to where the Founders intended them: the states and local communities.

Some on the right, like commentator and columnist George Will, are worried that moving in that direction will hand too much control to teachers’ unions. “Most school boards are elected, often in stand-alone elections in which turnout is low and the unions’ organization prevails,” he writes. If that is the result of returning sovereignty over educational issues to where it belongs, I say so be it.

The truth is that local teachers’ associations should not be feared or resisted like the national unions since they aren’t governed by rigid dogma or an aggressive political agenda, but by a collection of concerned teachers who have a vested interest in the well-being of their school and the children who are entrusted to their care.

Teachers are professionals who don’t need nationally elected lawyers and businessmen from California telling them the best way to get the most from their students in Connecticut. It’s time to start treating them that way - something “No Child” with its federal mandates, confusing guidelines, intimidation tactics, creativity-stifling measures and inflexible directives certainly doesn’t do.

Schools are different entities than businesses and corporations and pretending otherwise in our legislation only ensures more failure. If we truly desire to leave no child behind, it’s past time to get the federal government out of the education business and empower those who care most about that child’s success: parents and local communities.

View Larger Map

Sources: NY Times, PBS News, Think Progress, Washington Times, White House, Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Maps

No comments: