Critics of NCLB Ask Congress to Overhaul It

By Alyson Klein — February 23, 2007 8 min read
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Congress should scrap the accountability system at the center of the No Child Left Behind Act in favor of one that holds schools responsible for improving teacher training and parental involvement, says a proposal released last week by a coalition that includes some of the most prominent critics of the federal education law.

The Forum on Educational Accountability, which includes the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association, is also suggesting drastic changes in the way states set and measure their annual achievement targets.

“Redefining Accountability: Improving Student Learning by Building Capacity” is posted by the Forum on Educational Accountability.

The coalition’s Feb. 21 report is the latest proposal amid many offered recently for revising the 5-year-old law, which is up for reauthorization this year.

Less than a week before the forum’s recommendations were released, 10 Democratic senators sent a letter to key members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that criticizes the NCLB law’s heavy reliance on standardized testing—a concern echoed by the forum.

“Schools should be held accountable for implementing systemic improvements that are shown by experience, and by researchers in most instances, to be actually effective in improving student learning,” said Gary M. Ratner, the executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools, an education advocacy organization based in Bethesda, Md., and a member of the forum. “That’s what this thing’s supposed to be about. It’s not supposed to be a game to humiliate schools.”

The forum’s report suggests that the system of measuring student progress largely through tests should be broadened significantly to require states and districts to monitor schools to make sure they are implementing “systemic reforms” centered on professional development and parent outreach.

But defining accountability that way would be like “defining black as white and up as down,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education during President Bush’s first term. He has been an advocate of standards and accountability but has recently expressed qualms about the law.

“This would really mean throwing out NCLB,” he said of the forum’s proposal.

‘Serious but Reachable’

While the forum’s 20-page set of recommendations says that student progress should continue to be part of the accountability system, it does not give much detail on how states should measure it. The forum plans to release a second set of recommendations in the coming months fleshing out that issue. But, under the proposal briefly outlined in the report, schools would use multiple assessment measures, not just state exams, to demonstrate student achievement.

A Different Take on No Child Left Behind

The Forum on Educational Accountability, a coalition of numerous education and other groups, last week issued a report calling for a shakeup of the No Child Left Behind Act, including less reliance on tests and penalties and more emphasis on teacher training and parent involvement. Among its key recommendations:

• Provide time for staff discussion and collaboration during the school day.

• Offer intensive induction and mentoring support for beginning teachers and mentoring for experienced teachers.

• Relieve school districts of the requirement to spend any Title I funds on student transfers or tutoring. Instead, require districts to spend at least 20 percent of their Title I funds on implementing professional-development requirements.

• Require every Title I-financed “high-needs school” to provide literacy, family-skills, and other programs to families to empower them to help in their children’s learning at home.

• Replace the current system of escalating penalties for schools and districts that do not achieve adequate yearly progress with required implementation of specific systems focused on increased parent involvement and teacher training.

SOURCE: Forum on Educational Accountability

States would set annual achievement targets based on the performance of their most successful schools receiving federal Title I aid, in terms of test-scores, graduation rates, or on the state’s multiple-measure accountability system. Schools would be expected to show a positive trend in student learning outcomes and would be given credit for improving individual students’ progress. The proposal would also abolish the 2013-14 deadline in the current law for bringing all students in grades 3-8 to proficiency in mathematics and reading, which the forum argues is unrealistic.

Those proposals would significantly water down academic standards, said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that supports the NCLB law.

“Parents, students and the public at large are saying they want serious improvements in student achievement,” he said. “I think this proposal fails that test. It wants to pretend that what we’ve done in the past is good enough.”

Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing and is a member of the forum, said he expected such criticism.

“Of course they’re going to make that claim, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Neill said. “The problem is that we have a situation where we claim that everybody is going to be proficient by 2014. There’s not a single person who’s actually investigated [the law’s goal] who has any credibility who believes it’s possible. ... If one puts forth serious but reachable goals, that’s a level at which people can respond positively.”

The proposals in the forum’s report are based on the “Joint Organizational Statement on the No Child Left Behind Act,” released in October 2004. That broadly worded proposal, signed by 106 education, civil rights, child-advocacy, and other groups, called for stronger emphasis on the capacity of schools to improve and an accountability system that examines schools on the basis of more than just test scores. Most of those groups did not have a direct role in drafting the more specific recommendations released last week.

The forum was created to advance the goals of the joint statement; its first major action was releasing last week’s recommendations.

A working group of about 20 organizations, including the 3.2 million-member NEA, FairTest, and the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for educators and students in special and gifted education, collaborated on the recommendations.

The working group did not seek approval from all the groups that had signed the 2004 statement, although they were kept apprised of the various discussions on the draft, Mr. Neill said. If the working group had waited for each of the organizations to endorse every recommendation, the forum’s report would not have been released in time to have a serious impact on the debate over the NCLB reauthorization, he said.

The report comes in the wake of other proposals for renewing the law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that holds schools accountable for student achievement.

The Bush administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization, released this month, includes scholarships to help low-income students in struggling schools attend a private school.

The Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan panel backed by the Aspen Institute, issued a lengthy set of recommendations this month that calls for strengthening the federal law, including a federal role in developing voluntary national academic standards. (“Panel Report Is Latest Rx for NCLB,” Feb. 21, 2007.)

Growing Opposition?

Much of the Forum on Educational Accountability’s report focuses on the specific improvements schools would have to implement regarding teacher training. Schools would have to align professional-development activities with student learning needs, as identified by teachers and administrators. They would also be required to allot time for staff discussion and collaboration during the school day, and provide intensive mentoring for new and experienced teachers.

The report seeks to implement the principles of the “Joint Organizational Statement on the NCLB Act,” which has been signed by 106 education, civil rights, religious, disability, and civic groups, including:

• American Association of School Administrators
• Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
• Council for Exceptional Children
• FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
• International Reading Association
• National Alliance of Black School Educators
• National Council for the Social Studies
• National Council of Teachers of English
• National Education Association
• National School Boards Association

The federal government would allocate 20 percent of funds under Title I, its flagship program for disadvanteged students, for such professional development. The highest-poverty schools and those with the lowest student achievement would be given priority for receiving the funding.

Schools would also be required to provide literacy, family-skills, and other programs to help parents assist with their children’s education. Districts would be required to set aside 5 percent of their Title I allocations for such activities.

Under the plan, districts would no longer need to set aside funds to provide tutoring or to allow students to transfer to better-performing public schools—provisions of the NCLB law that many organizations in the working group say divert resources from struggling schools.

Mr. Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation said he doesn’t expect much support in Congress for the forum’s reauthorization plan.

“It’s remarkable how politically tone-deaf these ideas are,” he said.

The forum has begun selling its proposals on Capitol Hill, however. It held a briefing for Senate staff members on Feb. 21. About nine aides, from both Republican and Democratic offices, attended.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the panel would consider the recommendations along with a number of other reauthorization proposals.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, has introduced proposals to bolster professional development and parent involvement in the reauthorization of NCLB, but does not support the forum’s call “to reverse the [law’s accountability] system,” which he views as “critical to achieving its stated goal of closing the achievement gap,” said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Joel Packer, the NEA’s chief lobbyist on NCLB issues, said that he believes there is a growing groundswell of opposition to the law, particularly among new members of Congress. He also pointed to the 10 Democratic senators’ Feb. 15 letter to their chamber’s education committee leaders.

They are: Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democratic leader, and Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont; Carl Levin of Michigan; Claire McCaskill of Missouri; Ben Nelson of Florida; Ken Salazar of Colorado; and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

“We have concluded that the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind in their current form are unsustainable and must be overhauled significantly during the reauthorization process,” the senators wrote. They complained of “the degree to which requirements of NCLB are pressuring schools and teachers to narrow curriculum,” and criticized the law’s sanctions, which they say take resources away from struggling schools.

They said they planned to work with Sen. Kennedy to address concerns about NCLB’S funding and implementation. Ms. Wagoner said that Sen. Kennedy was “sympathetic to the issues raised in the letter” and would work with the senators to explore those topics in upcoming hearings.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Critics of NCLB Ask Congress To Overhaul It


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