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After Four Years, NCLB Impact Seen as Positive and Negative

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After its fourth year in practice, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is changing the way schools and districts provide instruction—for better and for worse, concludes a wide-ranging study released today.

The report, conducted by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research organization that tracks implementation of the federal law, found that schools and districts are better aligning instruction and state standards, that test scores are rising, and that the number of schools labeled “in need of improvement” is holding steady.

But it also found that most districts examined are taking time away from studies of some subjects such as science, social studies, and art in order to focus on the subjects that the federal education law emphasizes, namely reading and mathematics.

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“Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessary to help low-achieving students catch up,” the report says. “Others pointed to negative effects, such as shortchanging students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school.”

The report, “From the Capital to the Classroom,” is an analysis of the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act in 299 school districts in 50 states. Researchers did in-depth case studies of 38 geographically diverse districts and 42 individual schools. It is the CEP’s fourth annual report on the law.

U.S. Department of Education officials were unavailable to comment on the report.

According to the report, teaching and learning are changing significantly in the nation’s public schools because of the law. Principals and teachers are more often using test data to help improve student test performance, and are making sure curriculum and instruction are aligned with state standards. Districts are focusing on ways to improve teachers’ skills.

While some school officials credited the changes to the NCLB Act, which requires that schools meet annual educational goals for their students or face sanctions, still more attributed improvements to new district policies.

On the downside, 71 percent of districts said they had decreased the amount of time teachers spent on subjects not tested by the federal law in order to emphasize reading and math. In some cases, districts said they skipped certain subjects altogether to provide students with double reading or math time, said Jack Jennings, the president of CEP, during a press conference held to release the report March 28.

Mr. Jennings listed social studies, science, art, and music as the subjects most often cut out or curtailed by schools emphasizing reading and math.

Susan Griffin, the executive director of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies, said that although she’s been hearing rumors of a de-emphasis of social studies for years, this study is the first quantitative measure to show it.

“We’re hearing that [social studies is] almost disappearing in the elementary schools. How are older students going to handle the higher-level social studies classes if they don’t have the basics?” she said. “In this global economy and very complex world, if students aren’t prepared, how are they going to make good decisions?”

The study also found that test scores are rising in a majority of states and school districts, but that there is doubt on the local level over what is causing that improvement and what it means.

Researchers also determined that although all districts in the country are covered by the No Child Left Behind Act, urban districts are most often experiencing the greatest impact of the law. About 90 percent of schools in “restructuring,” the last stage of NCLB sanctions, are in urban districts. That is because urban districts typically have more subgroups of students—such as African-Americans and Latinos—for which they must show progress than rural districts do, Mr. Jennings said. A large urban district may have eight subgroups to measure, and the federal education law requires that they all make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key measure of improved achievement under the law.

Recommendations and Questions

The report details what the authors deem the strengths of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the way it has forced schools and districts to align curricula with tests and to focus on student subgroups. The subgroup focus is seen as setting high academic expectations for all students, including special education students and English-language learners as well as those members of racial and ethnic minorities.

But it details troubling effects, too, the largest being a greater burden on states, school districts, and schools without an adequate increase in funding, according to the report.

The CEP makes eight recommendations for improvements to the law. One of those is to improve the transparency in state accountability programs. The U.S. Department of Education has been in talks with some states to revise their accountability plans, but that process has largely been shielded from public view. Many states don’t know what types of flexibility other states have been granted.

“This is not a very open process,” Mr. Jennings said. “This is not right for a government agency.”

The report also recommends that the Department of Education monitor closely the effects of such flexibility to determine whether it is having a positive or negative effect on student achievement.

Another recommendation is that the federal government support the efforts of states and districts with adequate funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. While the demands on local officials are becoming greater in relation to the federal education law, funding is shrinking, it suggests.

President Bush has called for a 3.8 percent cut to the department’s fiscal 2007 discretionary spending level. The department’s 2006 discretionary spending took a 1 percent cut, because of an across-the-board reduction that affected most federal departments.

The report also recommends that Congress give states and districts more resources and authority over supplemental-service providers that offer tutoring services for students at struggling schools. While states must approve those providers, they have little resources or authority to monitor them to prevent fraud or other problems, the report says.

“Current federal regulations unduly restrict the ability of school districts to establish rules for supplemental-service providers,” the report says. “Yet school districts are ultimately responsible for allocating funds to providers and raising the achievement of the students who receive tutoring services.”

In addition, the report calls for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to expand a pilot program that allows schools identified as being in need of improvement to offer tutoring to students before they are given the option of transferring to another school. The law currently requires schools to offer transfer options to students after two years of failing to meet AYP goals. After three years of failing to meet those goals, a school has to offer transfer options and tutoring services.

Not everyone, however, thinks the report’s conclusions are as solid as they should be.

Greg Forster, the director of research at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based group that supports greater choice in education, such as the use of tuition vouchers, said the report doesn’t contain empirical research.

“They don’t do independent data collection,” Mr. Forster said. “They’re just doing interviews with local public school officials.”

He added that the group does not independently confirm data provided by school officials. “I’m not accusing them of dishonesty,” he said, “but they’re putting something forward as fact when it’s really just the party line of the public school system.”

Mr. Forster, who has an article on Mr. Jennings and his research methods coming out in the summer issue of the magazine Education Next, also suggested that Mr. Jennings’ long experience as an education staff member for House Democrats had shaped the report’s conclusions.

“He was not trained as a social scientist,” Mr. Forster said. “His background in education is that for 27 years he worked to promote the Democratic Party line.”

Mr. Jennings dismissed those complaints.

“I take it as a compliment that our organization must be having an effect if the forces … that are pursuing a very conservative agenda are attacking our work,” he said. “This means we are a rational voice for the improvement of public schools, and we’re having too much of an influence, in their view, on the debate of how to improve public schools.”

As for the study’s methods of data collection, he said they’re the same methods used by the Education Department and other federal agencies that do surveys on everything from employment trends to population growth.

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