Federal

City Leaders Back Stronger Accountability

By David J. Hoff — July 24, 2008 6 min read
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In the debate over the future of the No Child Left Behind Act, many educators say the federal government should ease the law’s accountability requirements by setting achievable goals and imposing reasonable sanctions on schools that don’t meet them.

But urban leaders—whose schools are most likely to struggle to reach the law’s current goals and most apt to face such sanctions—are urging Congress to be more aggressive in holding their schools accountable in the future.

“I think you should make it harder for people like me because it’s not about me, it’s about my kids,” Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the New York City public schools, told the House Education and Labor Committee at a recent hearing.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, center, and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, right, listen as Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee this month on the need for a process to develop national academic-content standards.

The message Mr. Klein and three of his peers gave the panel is consistent with the urban superintendents’ stances since President Bush first proposed linking federal funding to increasing student achievement at the beginning of his administration, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. The Washington group is made up of more than 60 of the country’s largest urban districts.

The city schools’ group is the only major organization representing educators that lobbied for the NCLB law in 2001 and remains one of its biggest supporters.

“Urban schools are not afraid of accountability,” Mr. Casserly said in an interview. “It has helped us focus everyone on student achievement. It’s part of the reason why we came out in favor of NCLB in the first place.”

Against the Grain

Other groups representing teachers, school board members, and administrators are at odds with the city schools’ group.

The law is “too badly broken to be fixed,” Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a July 13 speech, the day she was elected to lead the 1.4 million-member union. (“New AFT Leader Vows to Take Down NCLB,” this issue.)

Other groups—notably the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators—are pushing to scale back the student-achievement goals under the law and to give local officials greater discretion when intervening to help struggling schools.

But urban leaders want more, not less, of such accountability. At the July 17 hearing before the House education committee, Mr. Klein and his counterparts from the Atlanta, Chicago, and District of Columbia school systems—as well as the mayors of New York City and Washington—said they want Congress to establish a process to create national academic-content standards and to set up experiments for paying teachers based on the achievement of their students.

Those issues also remain controversial among education groups. Last year’s effort to reauthorize the NCLB law stalled when the AFT and the 3.2 million-member National Education Association lobbied against sections of a draft bill that would have created grants to allow districts to base teachers’ pay, in part, on the achievement of their students. (“Unions Assail Teacher Ideas in NCLB Draft,” Sept. 19, 2007.)

Urban leaders are embracing accountability under the NCLB law because it gives them leverage to force changes in schools that otherwise would be resisted by principals and teachers, said Charles L. Glenn, a professor of educational leadership at Boston University.

“It’s been remarkable ... that the bitching and moaning [about accountability] has been coming from the affluent suburbs,” he said. But city leaders aren’t complaining, he added, “even though they’re taking a drubbing” under the federal law’s accountability rules.

But many members of urban school boards aren’t as enthusiastic as their superintendents about the law’s accountability measures, said Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the NSBA, which is based in Alexandria, Va.

“They have felt they are at a disadvantage in how [the NCLB law] measures accountability,” Mr. Felton said in describing a common view among school board members. “Most of the discussion [over accountability] has been about how to be fair about how you measure progress and achievement.”

NCLB on Hold

Although the House panel called the city leaders to the recent hearing, the ideas discussed won’t become law anytime soon. With so much attention focused on the presidential campaign and pressing economic concerns, Congress has postponed debate over the future of the NCLB law, leaving it for the next president and members of the next Congress to decide.

But the urban superintendents’ statements reinforced the message that there’s no consensus among educators over whether the NCLB law—which requires schools to make annual progress toward raising all students to proficiency in reading and math—has helped schools improve, or on what changes would fix the law’s flaws.

See Also

For analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act, read our blog NCLB: Act II.

The divisions among educators over accountability, national standards and tests, and teacher pay will likely remain hard to bridge once Congress resumes trying to reauthorize the NCLB law, which is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

National standards and tests would make it easier for educators to know how the achievement of their students compares with the performance of the rest of the country, the urban leaders said at the hearing.

“The fact that you have 50 different hurdles for our children to jump over, that doesn’t make any sense,” Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago school system, said at the hearing.

“We need to have national standards and national assessments, so then everybody can understand that if you’re proficient in math in California, you’re proficient in math in New York,” added Mr. Klein of the 1.1 million-student New York City system.

Democrats on the House panel questioned whether it would be fair to require all students to meet national standards if some attend schools that are inadequately financed.

“When we talk about national standards, that’s great. But what about the inequity in funding?” said Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., who represents Newark.

But the urban leaders responded that national standards would show how low student achievement is linked to inadequate spending and would buttress arguments that money needs to be redistributed from affluent areas to poor ones.

“If we went to national standards,” Mr. Duncan said, “that would force the conversation about funding inequities that we skirt now.”

Paying for Performance

Another Democrat on the committee questioned the feasibility of devising teacher-compensation systems tied to students’ achievement on tests.

It would be difficult to create a system that is “fair and objective and defensible,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California. “That’s what it’s going to take to get all teachers to buy in to what will be in their best interests in the long run.”

Finding a way to do that is important even though “there’s an incredible amount of pushback to this,” said Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the 50,000-student District of Columbia public schools.

Many proposals would increase the pay of teachers who take jobs in schools where student achievement is lowest, but Ms. Rhee argued that such teachers need to be further rewarded if they succeed in improving achievement in those schools.

“It’d be incredibly important for the Democratic Party to step up on this,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as City Leaders Back Stronger Accountability

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