The No Child Left Behind Act had a “broader and deeper” impact in its second year on the books, even while only about one-fifth of school districts have entered the phase in which they have schools facing the law’s consequences for low performance, such as allowing students to transfer, a new study suggests.
The 241-page report from the Center on Education Policy, released last week, concludes that states and districts are taking the law seriously but are having difficulty with some requirements that are “too stringent” or “not workable” in certain situations. It also finds that some states and districts are straining to meet the law’s demands in the face of limited funding and staffing.
“We found positive things as well as problems,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the center, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
The report, part of a multiyear research project, is unusual in its breadth and depth, involving a survey of 47 states and the District of Columbia, a nationally representative sample of 274 districts, case studies in some three dozen districts, and interviews with federal officials.
|View the accompanying chart, “State Views on No Child Left Behind Act.”|
Of the districts surveyed, 21 percent reported having one or more schools identified as “needing improvement” under the federal law for the 2003-04 school year, compared with 15 percent the previous year. The survey found a larger percentage of urban districts in that category, climbing from 40 percent to 50 percent, but also a growing share of suburban districts, which rose from 15 percent to 23 percent.
The report says that more students are choosing to leave low-performing schools under the law, though the proportion is still very small, rising from 1 percent of eligible children last school year to 2 percent this year.
By contrast, far more students are seeking out supplemental educational services under the law. For the 2002-03 school year, nearly half of eligible students received such services, the report says. That figure dropped to 25 percent of students during the current school year. Mr. Jennings said the percentage would likely rise before the school year was out, because many districts faced delays in learning the status of schools. The survey information was gathered last fall, he said.
“We speculate, based on our case studies and other anecdotal evidence,” the report says, “that parents may prefer to give their children extra learning time through supplemental services over moving their child to another school, even when they are clearly informed of their options.”
Under the law, if a school does not make “adequate yearly progress” for two straight years, the district must allow its students to transfer to a higher-performing public school. After a third year, students are also eligible to select from a menu of supplemental-service providers.
The report suggests that inadequate administrative capacity is a problem for states and districts dealing with the law. Thirty-eight out of 47 states said they did not have sufficient staff to carry out those duties, yet districts said that state agencies were the resource they relied on most to help them implement the act.
Ronald J. Tomalis, a counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, questioned the states’ complaints about capacity. He noted, for example, that state administrative dollars under the federal Title I program have climbed significantly. (“Debate Grows on True Costs of School Law,” this issue.)
The report offers a mixed assessment of the federal Department of Education’s performance in helping states and districts with implementation. When asked about the agency’s process of peer review and approval for state accountability plans, most states—33 out of the 47 that responded—said it was “very” or “somewhat” helpful. But when districts were asked generally to rate the quality of help provided by the department, most—63 percent—described it as “a little helpful” or “not helpful.” Just 9 percent said it was “very helpful.”
“First of all, there are 15,000 school districts in this nation,” said Mr. Tomalis about the low marks from districts. “The critical role as far as the federal government is the relationship with the states. Our outreach to the states has been unprecedented.”
At the same time, he said the federal agency was working hard to get information and help directly to districts. Mr. Tomalis pointed, for example, to the department’s creation in December of a “superintendent’s hotline,” a toll-free telephone number at which department staff members answer districts’ questions.
Asked which accountability requirements could create the most unexpected or negative consequences, state and district officials most often said those for students with disabilities and for English-language learners.
“States also cited problems with the law’s short deadlines,” the report says, “its insistence on revising states accountability frameworks to fit the federal demands, and its emphasis on sanctions.”
Despite such complaints, the report offers some reasons for optimism about the No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law two years ago last month.
"[It] is doing what federal laws tend to do best—focusing the attention of a large, decentralized education system on the same set of goals,” the report says.
A solid majority of the states “agree with the basic premises” of the law, according to the report. Asked generally about the accountability requirements, which have been the subject of considerable criticism, most states—33 out of 47—said they believed the mandates would help lift student achievement “to a great extent” or “somewhat” over time. (See chart, this page.)
Mr. Jennings emphasized that the report was only the second in a project to be carried out over several more years, with studies issued annually.
“What’s important to us,” he said, “is to see the trends over time, not just a simple look at one year.”