Why the Public Is Losing Faith in the ‘No Child’ Law

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In the nearly four years since Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, states have been under considerable pressure to comply with certain requirements, such as implementing standards-based tests in reading and math, disaggregating student-achievement data, and giving parents the option to transfer kids out of failing schools.

But another of the law’s goals—increasing parent and community involvement in the public schools—has received far less scrutiny, even though it was mentioned over a hundred times in the legislation.

Policymakers have turned their backs on the No Child left Behind Act's promise of increased public and parental involvement in the schools.

Explicitly, the No Child Left Behind Act promised to give citizens more opportunities to see what goes on in local schools, to become well informed about how schools work, and to become more involved in education policy debates, decisionmaking, and accountability in general.

But policymakers have turned their backs on the promise of increased public and parental involvement in the schools. Having listened to the concerns of thousands of citizens across the country, we at the Public Education Network can reach no other conclusion. Rather than bringing people closer to their schools, the No Child Left Behind law is causing many Americans to feel increasingly distrustful of and marginalized by professional educators.

By and large, the public has been assigned a perfunctory role in school improvement. Districts send out report cards that people cannot understand, agendas for reform parents had no hand in developing, and invitations to meetings at which they are expected to play no active part. Parents see the names of their children’s schools on watch lists, but they don’t know what those lists mean. They hear politicians talk about school choice, but they don’t see any real choices in their own neighborhoods. They know they need to speak up in order to get the services their kids deserve, but they don’t know how to voice their concerns or who will listen to them.

It’s hard enough keeping track of all the education policy changes that occur at the state and local levels—in any given year, school districts are liable to change course requirements, rewrite discipline codes, reclassify special-needs students, adopt new homework policies, and so on. But when the “No Child” law gets thrown into the mix, parents become completely baffled. What happens, they ask, if my kids don’t pass the No Child Left Behind tests, or if their school doesn’t make adequate yearly progress? What are “supplemental services,” and how can I get them? What do I do if my kids’ teachers aren’t highly qualified?

Moreover, when people do manage to educate themselves about the law, and when they do try to become involved in their schools, they tend to be rebuffed by school leaders and stymied by the lack of useful information about school performance, leaving them at a loss either to contribute to policymaking or to make wise decisions in the interests of their children.

These lessons were brought home vividly at a series of public hearings sponsored by PEN, local education funds, and other community organizations in nine states. Meeting in historic sites, statehouses, and city halls, hundreds of ordinary Americans took time out of their busy lives to express their concerns, hopes, and ideas about school improvement. An additional 12,000 registered their opinions by way of an online poll.

From these citizens, we heard many touching stories about the struggle to ensure that children get a decent education. We heard stories about communities working to help their schools improve in spite of fiscal pressures and other challenges. And we also heard strong support for the goals of the No Child Left Behind legislation. As one Los Angeles parent put it: “I don’t want No Child Left Behind to stay a wonderful idea. I want it to really become as it should be, and have it really serve to improve our children’s education and better our community as a whole.”

We also heard a consistent, powerful call to improve the law and its implementation. For instance, participants overwhelmingly endorsed the idea that schools should be rewarded not only for reaching ambitious goals, but also for making incremental gains along the way to those targets. They argued that Congress should allow students to receive supplemental educational services before they receive invitations to transfer out of their neighborhood schools. And in large numbers, participants expressed doubt about the use of testing as a tool to improve school quality—hundreds of people argued that tests give only a partial picture of academic performance, and that the pressure to raise scores is having a negative impact on teaching and learning.

Equally important, the public evidently has not been convinced—in spite of what people hear from policymakers—that there has been significant progress in ensuring that all teachers are highly qualified. States and districts may say they are in compliance with federal guidelines, but parents know what they see in their children’s classrooms. They may be confused by the mumbo jumbo of “AYP,” by ever-shifting regulations, and by unfiltered data, but they know whether or not they’ve got teachers who make a difference in their children’s learning.

Parents know they need to speak up in order to get the services their kids deserve, but they don't know how to voice their concerns or who will listen to them.

In sum, the hearings revealed some widespread concerns about the course the No Child Left Behind Act’s implementation has taken so far, and they produced some useful suggestions on how the law might be put back on track. Overwhelmingly, participants recommended that federal policymakers do the following:

Enforce the law’s information requirements. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states and districts have produced a wealth of information on school performance, teacher quality, and other variables, but few states have made that information readily available to the public. If federal officials are vigilant in getting states to comply with other aspects of the law, they should be just as vigilant in getting them to report data in a timely fashion and in clear and comprehensible ways, even translating results into Spanish and other languages as necessary.

Enforce parent-involvement provisions. In most districts, parents meet resistance from school officials when they attempt to participate in decisionmaking. By enforcing provisions already in the law, though, the federal government can send a strong signal of support for parents and other citizens who choose to become active partners in school improvement. If local administrators prefer to hold closed meetings, change policies without public input, or otherwise keep the public at arm’s length, then it is the responsibility of federal and state policymakers to remind them of the law’s intent.

Count significant progress toward AYP. Many Americans believe that high-stakes testing is leading teachers to squeeze valuable topics out of the curriculum, while creating far more pressure than is needed to motivate students to improve their academic performance. There’s no reason to insist on an all-or-nothing system of incentives, people tell us. It would make better sense to give schools some adequate-yearly-progress credit for making significant progress toward goals, rather than threatening to punish them if they fall just an inch short of some arbitrarily defined target.

Provide supplemental services before allowing choice. Parents of children in low-performing schools tend to favor the option of receiving supplemental education services first, before they are given the option of sending their children elsewhere. Public support for neighborhood schools is quite strong in all parts of the country, and people tell us that federal policy should be adjusted to help those schools develop better tutoring services and to give them more time to improve before choice provisions go into effect.

Hold states accountable. Currently, states set performance targets and define their own No Child Left Behind implementation plans. But they face no consequences when they fall short of their objectives. According to many of the Americans we spoke to, states do not deserve such a free ride. Just like individual teachers, administrators, schools, or districts, states should have some sort of penalties imposed on them when insufficient numbers of children meet AYP targets, teacher-quality guidelines are not met, and so on. Perhaps states should be designated as “in need of improvement,” for example, and given a time period in which to take corrective action or face the loss of federal funds.

Of course, it is not fair to hold states accountable without bolstering their capacity. To make the necessary shift from their monitoring role to providing schools and districts with technical assistance in everything from research to effective pedagogy and improving teacher quality, state departments of education need additional resources and support from their legislatures and the federal government.

Americans remain as willing as ever to devote themselves to the cause of school improvement. On matters of education, the public is not merely opinionated but extraordinarily generous as well, with citizens giving freely of their time and attention when asked to support local school initiatives, attend meetings, coach athletic teams, organize fund-raising events, and on and on.

But the point isn’t to praise citizens for their willingness to help the schools, as though parents, pta members, after-school volunteers, and community activists were mere auxiliaries to the school system. The point is that the public is an integral part of the infrastructure of public education—and under the No Child Left Behind law should play a more central role than ever, as citizens are called upon to monitor academic performance, choose among schools and programs, and hold officials accountable for results.

The old educational infrastructure cannot hold up under the No Child Left Behind Act’s new expectations—no more than old telephone lines can manage cellphone traffic. Increasingly, public education will depend on networks of engaged citizens, powered by clear and consistent information. States and school districts must do a better job of reaching out to those people and keeping them in the conversation, just as the law requires.

Vol. 24, Issue 39, Pages 34-35

Published in Print: June 8, 2005, as Why the Public Is Losing Faith In the ‘No Child’ Law
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