Leading national civil rights groups and advocates are increasingly divided over whether the No Child Left Behind Act will improve the academic achievement of poor and minority students, a rift that is generating conversation and concern among a circle of people accustomed to working together.
The differences of opinion range from qualified support to harsh criticism, leaving some longtime civil rights activists on opposing sides for the first time. “Unity is always best,” said John H. Jackson, the national director of education for the NAACP, which has joined forces with those seeking major changes to the nearly 4-year-old federal law. “But a little of what everyone is saying is correct. Each side is presenting a voice that needs to be heard.”
The divisions are deep enough that last year, two civil rights groups joined forces with a prominent business organization to form the Achievement Alliance, a coalition that counters attacks on the law.
Few civil rights advocates disagree with the law’s overarching goal: bringing all U.S. students’ state test scores in reading and mathematics to the proficient level by 2013-14. Because that goal requires closing gaps between African-American and Hispanic students and their white peers, most support the law’s mandate to break down performance data for racial, ethnic, economic, and other subgroups to hold schools and districts accountable for their progress.
But the law’s sanctions for failing to make adequate yearly progress toward its goals have some in the civil rights community claiming it penalizes and stigmatizes struggling districts and schools without giving them the resources needed to improve.
Others believe the law is the best tool available to pressure schools and districts to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education. The NCLB law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s agenda for schools, passed Congress in 2001 with large bipartisan majorities.
The debate came into sharp focus this summer, when the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released a report examining district-level accountability under the federal law in six states. It concluded that districts facing sanctions, such as student transfers, serve large numbers of poor and minority students.
The report, which characterized the law as having a “racially disproportionate impact,” also contended that federally approved changes to some states’ accountability standards are letting predominantly white suburban districts off the hook.
Accountability at Issue
Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project, said some civil rights leaders who were “very involved” in writing the law believe in demanding a level of academic achievement from schools and districts and setting deadlines to get the job done. But that approach is not founded in any research or understanding of effective ways of improving education, he argued.
Legislative Director, National Council of La Raza
“For the most part, civil rights groups all have the same goal in mind. Given the breadth of NCLB, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are some differences of opinion.”
Director, Civil Rights Project, Harvard University
Civil rights leaders are “absolutely committed to racial justice. It’s a matter of understanding how to get there.”
President, National Education Association
“There’s a growing chorus of dissatisfaction with the implementation of NCLB that can’t be swept under the rug.”
The “adequate yearly progress” requirements and sanctions in the law were “misconceived in serious ways by people who had the best of intentions,” Mr. Orfield said. He added that the measures have resulted in “unanticipated, deep consequences” that are undermining efforts to improve schools.
The Achievement Alliance immediately issued a news release to counter the Civil Rights Project’s conclusions.
“The fact that students in larger, more diverse districts are being paid attention to and given extra help is a welcome change in an education system that routinely shortchanges such students,” the statement said. “This additional support should not be characterized as punishment.”
The Achievement Alliance is made up of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a national watchdog group; the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy group; the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group that promotes high achievement for poor and minority students; the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of major corporations; and the National Center for Educational Accountability, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit organization that promotes the use of data to improve learning. The other groups are located in Washington.
“Kids were getting punished before this,” said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission, who helped write the education law. “Even if they’re not held back in school, they are coming out of school without having learned what’s necessary to be effective participants in society.”
Mr. Taylor, a veteran desegregation lawyer and longtime activist, characterized the split within the civil rights community as harmful to achieving the law’s goals.
“It’s a war on the whole idea of reform. Gary [Orfield] wasn’t opposed to sanctions when it came to dealing with segregated schools,” he said. “When public officials are not carrying out their duties, you sanction them.”
Observers say that civil rights advocates have differed on the No Child Left Behind law since its inception, but that those differences have been overshadowed by the National Education Association’s April lawsuit challenging the act and by widely publicized examples of state resistance to the legislation.
Monty Neill, the co-executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group critical of standardized tests, said most civil rights groups have found “serious flaws” with the law, including an over-emphasis on testing and a lack of adequate funding.
Calling for Changes
Mr. Neill helped write a joint statement last fall that calls for substantial changes to the law, which is due for renewal by Congress in 2007. More than 50 groups support the continuing effort, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NEA, and the National School Boards Association.
“You can’t just outline these requirements and sanction students and teachers without also providing the resources to do it,” said Mr. Jackson of the NAACP.
Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member NEA, said some critics are erroneously portraying the union as anti-No Child Left Behind to drive a wedge between it and civil rights groups.
In fact, Mr. Weaver argues there are few differences in their positions, because the union supports standards, accountability, and elimination of achievement gaps.
“All we’re talking about is fixing it and funding it,” he said of the law. “I think it’s a cruel hoax to have the data disaggregated and find out what you need, but in many instances not have the needs of the students met.”
Civil rights advocates do share common criticisms of several provisions under the law, including concerns about the quality of testing for English-language learners and a wish to extend the law’s transfer option to allow students to move to better schools in neighboring districts, not just their home districts.
Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, believes that cohesiveness proves that views of the law are not that far apart.
“I believe that the civil rights community, at the end of the day, will come up with some principles that we can all rally behind,” he said.