In a joint letter sent to Congress last week, more than 100 superintendents and other education leaders urged lawmakers to resist pressure to scale back the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act.
The signatories to the letter objected to “the effort to roll back” parts of the law as “a thinly veiled attempt to turn back the clock to a time” when schools could average the performance scores of their students. Schools, the letter said, could “coast” on that number, rather than revealing the academic struggles of some children, such as those from low-income families and those enrolled in special education.
The Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for disadvantaged students, organized the letter-signing in a bid to offset what it views as a rise in rhetoric targeting the federal law. The group criticized those it believes are attempting to undermine the law, but did not name them.
Some education groups back the law, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, while others, such as the National Education Association, have called for varying degrees of revision. Several states, as well, are seeking modifications or considering opting out of its provisions. (“NEA Seeks Allies to Bring Lawsuit on ESEA Funding,” Aug. 6, 2003, and “States Need Updates for Managing Data, Analysis Concludes,” Oct. 22, 2003.)
Criticism of the law has cropped up in the presidential campaign. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination, has proposed significant changes, including the law’s accountability provisions.
In a conference call with reporters last week, the Education Trust’s director, Kati Haycock, said she was concerned that “some of the opposition” to the law has “crossed a very serious line” by suggesting that poor children and those who are members of racial minorities can’t learn as well as their more advantaged or white peers.
Many of the superintendents who signed the letter run districts with large populations of poor and minority children and can attest that a focused effort can deliver improved achievement, for even the most disadvantaged children, Ms. Haycock said.
Several school leaders who joined in the conference call related such success stories from districts they have worked in.
“For too long, we’ve been hearing that poor and minority children cannot learn at high levels, and we’ve made excuses for our own failures,” said Diana Lam, New York City’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. “The culture of accountability” created by the No Child Left Behind Act is important to ensure that sound schooling is provided for all children, she said.
Ricardo Z. Medina, the superintendent of the 2,300-student Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District in Michigan, said districts have long used federal Title I money for disadvantaged children without having to justify the outcomes.
“The accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind are forcing us to do some things we should have been doing all along,” he said.
Some who have raised objections to the law took issue with the Education Trust’s suggestion that wanting it revised means they have low expectations for disadvantaged children.
“I am offended by that,” said Frank Belluscio, the spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which has joined with other education groups and the state’s Democratic governor to urge changes in the law, such as allowing more individualized assessment of special education students’ progress.
“I’ve yet to hear anyone say we don’t want to close achievement gaps. It’s important that we do,” he said. “We want children with special learning needs to meet the same standards as anyone else, but you need to assess their progress differently.”
The signatories to the letter argued for full funding of the law, but urged their colleagues to avoid using insufficient money “to escape our responsibilities” for implementing the law.
“We never have enough resources,” Mr. Medina said. “We are going through terrible economic times now. But that becomes a copout and an excuse.”