As Bush, Spellings Exit, They Put Last Signatures on No Child Left Behind

By David J. Hoff — January 21, 2009 4 min read

Through its last days in office, the Bush administration was seeking to preserve its legacy under the No Child Left Behind Act.

President George W. Bush chose to give the final policy speech of his presidency on the law that was one of the most important domestic accomplishments of his eight years in office.

“The most important result of the No Child Left Behind is this: Fewer students are falling behind, more students are achieving high standards,” Mr. Bush said at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia on Jan. 8—the seventh anniversary of his signing of the legislation.

That same day, Mr. Bush’s secretary of education made several policy announcements, putting the administration’s final signature on the NCLB law.

In a pair of executive actions, outgoing Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings gave four additional states the authority to use so-called growth models for their accountability systems and three others the chance to differentiate the interventions for schools failing to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law.

On Jan. 7, the outgoing top K-12 official in the Department of Education issued a public letter to each chief state school officer, explaining each state’s progress in implementing the law’s testing rules and publishing the results on the law’s accountability measures.

“I want to take a moment to thank you and your colleagues for all your hard work to help realize the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has led to real and meaningful improvement in student achievement,” Kerri L. Briggs, who was the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote in the letters.

Sending letters to the states was a fitting way for the Bush administration to close out the implementation of the NCLB law, said Rick Melmer, South Dakota’s secretary of education from 2003 to 2008.

“This was a good way to tie a bow on the ... system,” said Mr. Melmer, who is now the dean of the school of education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Impact on Policy

But Mr. Melmer said that the letters won’t have much lasting effect. State officials are waiting to see how the Obama administration will change the implementation of key parts of the NCLB law.

“That’s where their thoughts are right now,” he said.

But Ms. Spellings’ actions will change the way seven states make AYP decisions and intervene in struggling schools.

Ms. Spellings also sought to influence districts’ policies on offering public school choice and free tutoring to students in schools that fail to make adequate progress for three or more years. On Jan. 14, she distributed a 58-page document explaining what districts need to do to ensure students and their parents are aware of their opportunities.

President George W. Bush collects letters from students at General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia on Jan. 8, the seventh anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Much of the nonbinding guidance explains the requirements in Title I regulations that the Education Department published on Oct. 29. Among the requirements is that districts notify parents of the chance to enroll their children in tutoring or to transfer them to a new school at least 14 days before the school year begins.

Because of Ms. Spellings’ late decision on growth models, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas will be able to change the way they determine AYP in the current school year. They will join 11 other states in using methods based on the growth of students’ achievement.

The growth models determine whether schools make AYP based on the academic growth of individual students or cohorts of students. The standard accountability measure under the NCLB law compares the achievement of one group of students from a particular grade against the results of the cohort from the previous year.

Flexibility Measures

Shortly after she became education secretary in 2005, Ms. Spellings said she would approve states’ growth-model plans that adhered to many important components of the NCLB law. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)

Those components include the annual assessment of students’ reading ability and mathematical skills in grades 3-8 and once in high school; the disaggregation of student scores into subgroups representing races, ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and English-language learners; and tracking student progress toward the goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Critics say growth models won’t remove many of the doubts over the NCLB law’s assumption that schools can assure that all students become proficient in the basic subjects.

“I see these efforts by [Ms. Spellings] as a way of fending off the fundamental problem that everybody agrees with, which is that AYP sucks,"said David Shreve, the federal-affairs counsel for education for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last year, Ms. Spellings established a separate pilot project allowing states to choose how to intervene in struggling schools. The states can differentiate schools’ remedies based on how far schools are from meeting AYP goals, with the schools farthest behind facing more aggressive changes.

On Jan. 8, Ms. Spellings announced that Arkansas, Louisiana, and New York would join that project. In July, Ms. Spellings approved six states to participate. But she added that other states had submitted plans she did not consider good enough to approve. (” NCLB Leeway Allows States to Hone Plans,” July 16, 2008.)

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as As Bush, Spellings Exit, They Put Last Signatures On No Child Left Behind


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