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Published in Print: March 26, 2008, as States Get Flexibility on Targets
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States Get Flexibility on Targets

Spellings to allow creation of alternative interventions.

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As President Bush nears the end of his tenure, his administration is putting its final stamp on the No Child Left Behind Act and trying to lay the groundwork for the law’s future.

The latest effort will allow as many as 10 states to create alternative interventions for schools that have failed to meet their achievement targets under the 6-year-old law. The states could offer intensive interventions in schools with persistently low achievement levels and target more specific help to schools that are closer to their achievement goals.

“The goal is to help educators act now to help schools in every stage of improvement,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a speech in St. Paul, Minn., where she unveiled the planned pilot project on March 18.

“We need triage,” Ms. Spellings said, “for those neediest schools.”

Although many observers and policymakers say that the NCLB law needs to refine its interventions based on the needs of individual schools, several questioned whether the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal for so-called “differential accountability” is the best approach.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

“The current law may be too hard on some schools, but, you know what, it’s too soft on other schools,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of communications and government relations for the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group that pushes for improved schooling for low-income and minority students.

The department’s plan doesn’t ensure that states will address the needs of schools that “are just flat-lining,” said Ms. Wilkins, whose group is one of the law’s strongest supporters.

A critic of the law said that the pilot project will be too small and too limited to change the problems that schools are having in implementing the law or to improve the public perception of it.

“This law is never going to be fixed by tinkering around the edges,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “We’re tweaking the heck out of the law and not dealing with the underlying issues.”

Informing Reauthorization

The Education Department said it will select states to participate the pilot project based on the quality of their proposals. Eligible states will be allowed to implement their plans in the 2008-09 school year.

Ms. Spellings’ goal is to offer states new flexibility in carrying out the NCLB law and to develop policies for Congress to consider if lawmakers don’t renew the law this year. Reauthorization before the election of a new president looks increasingly unlikely.

In recent weeks, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee have said they doubt they’ll be able to draft an NCLB bill that could pass Congress and be signed by President Bush. ("Rep. Miller Joins Pessimists Club on NCLB Renewal," March 19, 2008.)

More NCLB Flexibility

To qualify for the Department of Education’s new “differential accountability” pilot project, a state must have:

• Standards and tests that have been approved by the federal department.

• No “significant,” or deficient, findings from the federal monitoring of its No Child Left Behind Act programs.

• Its plan to provide “highly qualified” teachers approved by the department.

• What the department considers to be a timely and transparent process for publishing data on schools that are making adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law.

“One of the things that is important to me ... is to start developing some better practices so that Congress will enact things that are smart and good policy,” Secretary Spellings told members of the Council of the Great City Schools, a group representing the nation’s large urban school districts, the day before her announcement in St. Paul.

She added that the new project is similar to an Education Department pilot project to allow districts to make accountability decisions based on overall student growth. Ms. Spelling has approved nine states’ plans for so-called growth models and announced late last year that she would expand that project to include all states that qualify. ("‘Growth’ Pilot Now Open to All States," Dec. 12, 2007.)

Groups representing states endorsed Ms. Spellings’ latest pilot project, saying that it would give them the chance to experiment with alternative ways of improving schools that are failing to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward the law’s goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The differential-accountability pilot “is a step in the right direction and is one of the most critical issues” facing the NCLB law’s reauthorization, Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement.

Mr. Wilhoit traveled to St. Paul for Ms. Spellings’ announcement. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican; U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.; and other leading Minnesota policymakers and educators also attended the speech.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., praised the plan, but also said it won’t solve the problems with the bipartisan NCLB law, which is seen as one of President Bush’s major domestic accomplishments.

“The one-size-fits-all approach of NCLB is simply not working, and today’s announcement signals that the Bush administration is beginning to acknowledge that,” Sen. Clinton, who voted for the legislation in 2001, said in a statement released by her presidential campaign.

Neither Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is locked in a fight for the Democratic nomination with Sen. Clinton, nor Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, had commented on the plan as of press time this week.

Flexible Approaches

Under the NCLB law, an overhaul of the four-decade-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states and districts follow a series of interventions in schools that fail to make AYP. The law doesn’t distinguish between schools that miss the goals by a wide margin across all students and in each of the subgroups schools must track and those schools that miss by a small number in one or two subgroups. The subgroups include children with disabilities, English-language learners, as well racial, ethnic, and low-income categories.

After a school fails to make AYP for two years, it must offer students the opportunity to transfer to another public school. After another year, it must spend up to 20 percent of the money from its federal Title I allocation to pay for tutoring of its students, which is often provided by for-profit companies. Schools that don’t make AYP face the same scale of interventions regardless of how far away they are from reaching their achievement goals.

To qualify to take part in the pilot project, a state must be in compliance with a variety of sections of the NCLB law. Minnesota is not eligible for the program because its testing program hasn’t been approved by the federal Education Department. The state could apply for the differential-accountability program and receive approval that was conditional on its testing program being approved, said Chad Colby, a department spokesman.

Under the accountability project, Secretary Spellings said, states could take several steps in seeking to tailor the interventions offered to struggling schools. For example, she said, a state could analyze its test scores to identify a specific demographic population that was struggling in a particular grade level or subject. The state could then design interventions to be used in schools facing those problems with student achievement.

Ms. Spellings also suggested that a state could propose to allow schools to focus tutoring required under the NCLB law only on those students who are failing to reach proficiency, rather than offering the tutoring to all students, as the law now requires.

One critic of the plan said that states are most likely to design plans that lighten the accountability burden on affluent schools. In such schools, overall achievement is high, but the test scores of poor and minority students are low.

“The data from No Child Left Behind show that suburban schools aren’t doing any better job serving poor and minority kids than urban schools are,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of national policy and programs at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that supports the law’s accountability and school choice measures.

“There’s going to be a lot of political pressure for this to be an escape valve” for suburban schools, said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President Bush’s first term.

The states’ plans “are likely to result in dumping all of the urban schools into the toughest consequences,” Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told Ms. Spellings on March 17 after she addressed the group’s legislative conference in Washington.

Ms. Wilkins of the Education Trust said, however, that the Education Department hasn’t fully defined the types of steps states need to take to turn around schools and hasn’t provided enough research to inform Congress. But, she noted, department officials may provide more specific guidance when it reviews and approves states’ plans.

“With a pilot like this, it’s hard to know,” Ms. Wilkins said. “There’s a lot of discretion in the department.”

The deadline for state applications is May 2, and Ms. Spellings said the department would approve proposals in time for the 2008-09 school year.

Vol. 27, Issue 29, Pages 1,19

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