Special Report

Framing the Debate

By Lynn Olson & David J. Hoff — December 12, 2006 19 min read
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The No Child Left Behind Act is slated to be reauthorized in 2007, and both President Bush and the leaders of the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress have signaled their interest in keeping renewal of the law on schedule.

Even so, they may face an uphill battle. With the Democrats taking charge on Capitol Hill after victories in the midterm elections, their leaders will need to build support for the law among at least 41 new House members and eight new senators from their party. Many of the freshman legislators ran campaigns sharply critical of the nearly 5-year-old measure, which Mr. Bush signed into law in January 2002. The Republican leadership, for its part, must hold on to support among conservatives, who have been increasingly vocal about what they see as the bipartisan law’s overreach into areas of state and local control.

Though many observers don’t believe the reauthorization will actually be completed until after the 2008 presidential election, national education organizations and other interest groups are staking out their positions and lining up supporters. For example, some 90 national education, civil rights, and religious organizations have signed a “joint organizational statement on NCLB” that, among other aims, calls for a stronger focus on the capacity of schools to improve and on an accountability system that judges schools based on more than just test scores.

And a national commission on the law’s reauthorization, formed this year by the Washington-based Aspen Institute, has held hearings across the country and expects to issue recommendations next month.

“NCLB is clearly having a major impact on American public education,” says a review of the law’s effects published this fall by Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, and Diane Stark Rentner, the center’s director of national programs. “The key question is whether the strengths of this legislation can be retained while its weaknesses are addressed.”

For some of the law’s most vocal critics, the answer is clearly no. Some analysts, such Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, say the law’s bedrock premise that all students will meet challenging standards of academic proficiency by 2014 is an oxymoron. The act’s flaws are “so central to its design that the law is unfixable,” Mr. Rothstein contends.

But fixes—rather than a complete overhaul—remain the most likely scenario on Capitol Hill.

One sure topic, now that congressional Democrats are returning to power, will be whether the law has adequate funding. Both Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the incoming chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who will chair the House education committee, have complained repeatedly that the Bush administration and the outgoing Republican-led Congress have not lived up to their funding commitments.

Despite their complaints about funding, Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller have emphasized that they continue to support the underlying goals and structure of the law, which they helped craft in 2001. They say any version of the reauthorized law should keep the current target of having all students reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014 and continue to hold schools and districts accountable for tracking students’ progress toward meeting that goal. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and several key congressional Republicans are working from the same starting point.

Many observers expect the debate over renewing the law—which itself was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965—to touch on at least a half-dozen other big ideas for changes. Those themes include proposals for national academic standards; accountability models that measure students’ learning growth; testing and achievement targets for special populations, such as students with disabilities and English-language learners; revisions in the sanctions for schools that miss their performance targets; greater accountability for high schools; and more attention to teacher quality.

National Standards

While requiring states to get all students to proficiency in reading and math by the target year, the law lets each state define the knowledge and skills its students need, select the tests to measure their achievement, and set the bar for “proficient” performance. The result, analysts say, has been wide disparities in what proficiency means across states.

In response, some Washington-based policy and advocacy groups have revived calls for national education standards, with incentives for states to participate. The last big push for national standards occurred in the early 1990s.

Alternative Approach

Many education groups would like the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act to permit the use of “growth models” to measure school performance. The U.S. Department of Education already has a pilot program under way to help inform that debate.

JUNE/JULY 2005: The U.S. Department of Education holds meetings on the potential use of growth models to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

NOVEMBER 2005: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announces a pilot program that will permit up to 10 states to use growth models to help determine whether schools make adequate yearly progress under the federal law.

FEBRUARY 2006: Deadline for state applications to be considered for the growth-model pilot for the 2005-06 school year.

MAY 2006: The first two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, are approved for the pilot program.

NOVEMBER 2006: Delaware receives approval to use a growth model for the 2006-07 school year. Arkansas and Florida also get the nod, provided that their standards and assessment systems pass the department’s muster by the end of the 2006-07 school year.

PENDING: Nine states—Arizona, California, Hawaii, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah—have submitted growth-model proposals that will go before a federal review panel as early as February. Alaska and Oregon, whose earlier proposals were rejected, have been invited to resubmit plans by the end of December.

SOURCE: Education Week

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation advocates national standards and tests in reading, mathematics, science, writing, and history. The Center for American Progress favors such standards and tests in only the first two subjects. The Council of the Great City Schools, rather than have a single set of national tests, would require states to tether their own exams to national standards in reading, math, and science. While their ideas for structuring a standards system differ, all three groups want a common definition of proficiency.

“There is no reason that 50 states should have 50 different definitions of proficiency,” said Robert Gordon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The reading and math skills required to flourish economically and participate politically across the United States are increasingly the same.”

Nobody is suggesting that the federal government set the standards.

Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, thinks private groups with credibility should write the standards. The federal government could play a role by making the National Assessment of Educational Progress the tool for measuring whether states are moving toward proficiency, he says.

The Fordham Foundation prefers charging the governing board that oversees NAEP with setting the standards and developing the tests, at federal expense. States could then opt into the system if they chose. Another approach laid out by Fordham is to have consortia of states voluntarily develop standards and tests, with federal incentives to do so.

Even so, it’s not clear that Congress has the stomach to wade into another debate about national standards and tests before the next presidential election.

Measuring Growth

Current accountability measures under the NCLB law focus on whether schools get at least minimum percentages of their students over the proficiency bar each year. But that focus may create incentives for schools to ignore students far above or below the target.

In addition, how children perform in any single year is the product of all their previous experiences, both in and out of school, so it may not be the best way to hold schools accountable for learning, according to critics.

That’s why most national education groups want the law to incorporate the use of “growth models” that would hold schools accountable for how much students are learning during the course of a school year.

The U.S. Department of Education has already signaled its interest in such an approach. To date, it has permitted five states to pilot the use of growth models, as long as every student is on track to reach proficiency by 2014.

But how expansive the definition of growth models should be under the reauthorization, and how far it should depart from the law’s current accountability requirements, are likely to be subjects of debate.

The Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, in particular, has been pushing for the department to consider a wide range of growth models that would reflect the variety of methods now used by states. Other groups, though, have concerns about that approach.

The New York City-based National Down Syndrome Society, for example, cautions that growth models “present a myriad of concerns about validity and low expectations that the experts are not close to resolving.”

The Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and the Education Trust, both Washington-based groups that advocate for disadvantaged children, are also leery about throwing open the floodgates.

For instance, the Education Trust, which supports the use of growth models under certain conditions, proposes that participating states should have to show that their standards are aligned with the demands for postsecondary education, jobs that pay a living wage, and military service.

Some critics call for doing away with the goal of proficiency for all by 2014 on the grounds that it’s unrealistic. They’d base growth trajectories on empirical evidence about the progress students make at the most effective schools.

“At the very least, there should be an ‘existence proof’ that goals are obtainable,” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. One option, he suggests, is to use the growth trajectories of high-scoring schools and set a goal that all schools match them.

The improvement targets could also be combined with an overall status target, he says, so that schools that had reached some relatively high level of achievement would not have to show substantial gains each year.

But few observers believe that the law’s original drafters, such as Sen. Kennedy or Rep. Miller, will back away from the act’s aspirational goals. And Secretary Spellings has said the 2013-14 deadline of proficiency for all is non-negotiable.

Special Populations

To make adequate yearly progress—AYP, the key measure of performance under the federal law—schools and districts must meet achievement targets for their student populations as a whole and for specific subgroups, including students with disabilities and those still learning English. Accurately assessing such students and including the results in accountability systems have been among the stickiest parts of the law.

Why Schools Missed AYP

Schools fail to make adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law for a variety of reasons. Based on test data from the 2003-04 school year, schools more commonly failed to meet AYP targets for their overall school populations than for single subgroups of students, such as those with disabilities or English-language learners, according to a federal study submitted to Congress last spring.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Since the law’s passage, the Department of Education has twice introduced more flexibility for students with disabilities. States can now assess students with severe cognitive disabilities using alternative measures that are not pegged to grade-level standards, and count as “proficient” up to 1 percent of all students tested based on such exams. They can also count another 2 percent of all students tested as proficient, if they’re students with disabilities who took so-called modified assessments based on modified achievement standards.

Some groups, such as the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, want to raise such caps, so that states could count more students as proficient. Others, including the National Down Syndrome Society, want to lower the percentages, based on concerns that the current policy diminishes accountability for students in special education. The Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association proposes including the scores of students with disabilities in AYP calculations based on their progress over time.

Similar concerns have been raised about testing English-language learners. A number of education groups, including the National Association of State Title I Directors, have proposed exempting the math and reading scores of such students from AYP calculations for the first three years that they attend U.S. schools, or until they have passed a state-approved test of English proficiency. Others, such as the NSBA, which represents local school boards, want to expand the use of alternate assessments for English-learners, with the determination of which test is appropriate made for students on a case-by-case basis.

Many observers say the Education Department had been slow in providing guidance to states about developing alternative exams, and that more money and research are needed for that purpose.

Sanctions for Schools

Under the current law, students in schools identified for improvement can transfer to another public school in the first year that a school makes the list and opt for free tutoring in the second year. But few students have taken advantage of either option.

According to the federal government, less than 1 percent of eligible students chose to transfer to higher-performing public schools in the 2003-04 school year, the most recent year for which data were available, while only 17 percent of eligible students nationwide signed up for free tutoring.

The Education Department has a pilot program under way to switch the order of those remedies, and the topic undoubtedly will come up during the reauthorization. A number of national groups hope to limit both options to students in whatever subgroup failed to meet achievement targets, rather than leave the choices open to a school’s whole student enrollment.

AYP Score Card for States and D.C.

The state-by-state percent of public schools that did not make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the 2005-06 school year varied widely, from a high of 85 percent in the District of Columbia to a low of 4 percent in Wisconsin.

*Click image to see the full chart.


Note: Data were not available as of Dec. 4 for Illinois, Iowa, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, and Utah.
SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

Meanwhile, advocates of private school choice want to expand the transfer provision to nonpublic schools—an effort that failed last time around. The Fordham Foundation has proposed spending billions of dollars to create new high-performing schools of choice that would operate outside district control, including through contracting with high-performing private schools.

“The federal government should get out of the business of mandating school choice on a universal basis,” argued Michael J. Petrilli, the foundation’s vice president for national programs and policy and a former associate assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department during President Bush’s first term. “Experience has shown that Uncle Sam does not have the tools to force districts to implement school choice when the districts don’t believe in it.”

Instead, he suggests, Congress could offer grants to willing districts or cities that embraced choice as part of their school reform strategies.

For many experts, though, the bigger concern is how to differentiate among the many schools being identified for improvement—from those that narrowly miss an AYP target for a single subgroup to schools that fall short across the board. Right now, the interventions spelled out in the law don’t make such distinctions.

“NCLB should replace its all-or-nothing AYP calculations with a more flexible approach,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of educational policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “One might, for example, distinguish among schools that are making progress overall and in a given percentage of their demographic subcategories; those that are making progress overall but in less than the requisite number of categories; and those failing to make acceptable overall progress.”

Such a triage system, he says, would enable states and districts to focus on repairing the worst performers.

In general, policy experts and educators express concern that the law has focused more on punishment than on building the “capacity” needed to help schools improve—meaning such resources as professional development, curriculum materials, and assistance with data analysis. That’s one reason the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 66 large urban school districts, recommends recasting the current sanctions to emphasize instructional-intervention strategies designed to raise student achievement.

The council proposes that schools failing to improve after a year of “warning” would enter a three-year “corrective action” phase, during which they would lose the authority to determine their own instructional systems and, instead, be placed under close district supervision. If schools were still failing at the end of the three years, districts would have to close or reconstitute them—a faster schedule than under the current law.

President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2007 budget called for $200 million for school improvement grants to build up states’ capacity to help districts and schools, but the Council of Chief State School Officers wants even greater financing behind such efforts. Congress had not completed work on a 2007 federal spending plan for education as of last week.

Others also would like to see more money put toward capacity-building, particularly for longitudinal data systems, as well as for more research into identifying successful schools and disseminating their practices, and for purposes such as adolescent literacy and middle and high school improvement.

High Schools

The No Child Left Behind Act has arguably had a bigger impact on elementary schools than on high schools. That’s in part because about 85 percent of Title I funds go to elementary students; only about 15 percent is spent for students in middle school or above.

But the Bush administration has made clear it would like to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions more strongly into high schools. Its proposals for doing so in the outgoing Congress—by reallocating vocational education money to the NCLB law and requiring student testing in grades 9, 10, and 11—were dead on arrival. Still, proponents of more federal attention to high school improvement say the context is different from what it was five years ago.

Graduation-Rate Gaps

Official state-reported graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year were almost always higher than those found by using the Cumulative Promotion Index, a method that estimates the probability that a 9th grader will complete high school on time with a regular diploma.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

“I happen to think the biggest issue confronting the country is the goal of getting all youngsters to graduation ready for college and the workplace,” said Sandy Kress, a Texas lawyer who helped craft the 2001 legislation as an adviser to President Bush. “I think Democrats can agree to that and Republicans can agree to that. I think the business community is going to stress this.”

Among other possibilities, that may mean strengthening the provisions in the federal law that hold high schools accountable for their graduation rates. It also may mean adding other measures of high school performance, beyond the current requirement for testing in reading and math at least once in high school.

It also could mean devoting a larger portion of federal aid to teacher-professional-development initiatives targeted at adolescent literacy, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, and the preparation of middle school students to do high-school-level work.

Proposals to prepare more teachers to teach AP and IB programs are a prominent feature of economic-competitiveness bills that have been circulating on Capitol Hill, which could be starting points for debate in the Congress that begins in January.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that focuses on improving high schools, is planning to come out with a comprehensive set of recommendations for NCLB reauthorization in mid-February. Bethany Little, the group’s vice president for policy and federal advocacy, said the group is likely to call for a comprehensive federal fund for improving high schools, because many high schools do not receive federal Title I money. The proposals are also likely to address accountability; teacher quality and effectiveness; uniform academic standards aligned with assessments and coursework; community and parent involvement; and issues related to college access and preparation.

Teacher Quality

The federal law required that all teachers in the core academic subjects be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 school year, a deadline that has been extended to 2006-07. And it requires states to develop a plan to reduce disparities in teacher quality between high-poverty and low-poverty schools and districts. But most observers contend that the teacher-quality provisions are among the most poorly implemented in the law, and need far more attention from Congress.

One researcher has found evidence that the NCLB law has improved the qualifications of teachers entering the field. California reduced the number of teachers with emergency permits from 42,000 in 2000-01 to 20,000 in 2004-05, and eliminated the temporary credentials altogether, according to Susanna Loeb, an associate professor of education at Stanford University.

And in New York City, teachers entering the 1.1 million-student district through nontraditional routes have stronger academic backgrounds than the teachers they replaced, Ms. Loeb said.

However, Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, describes lax enforcement on teacher quality as a “squandered opportunity of momentous proportions.”

Her group favors shifting the law’s focus to who stays in teaching, by requiring teachers to demonstrate student-learning gains to earn tenure after the first one to three years in the classroom. Those whose students gain most also should be given significant incentives to stay in teaching and teach the most challenging students, she argues.

“I hear a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement around an evolution of thinking from ‘highly qualified’ to ‘highly effective,’ ” agreed Mr. Kress, the former adviser to President Bush. “That doesn’t mean the highly-qualified-teacher provisions are going to get scrapped. … The issue is going to be not so much one of scrapping, but rather extending.”

In particular, policy experts say, teachers should expect to see more incentives that encourage states to institute pay-for-performance programs.

The National Education Association backs a grant program that would encourage states to support skills- and knowledge-based staffing arrangements as long as they respect collective bargaining agreements. The 3.2 million-member union favors financial incentives—both direct federal subsidies and tax credits—for teachers and paraprofessionals who work in high-poverty or low-performing schools for five years. But it opposes linking pay directly to student test scores.

Also expected are more proposals to recruit high-quality people into teaching, particularly undergraduate math and science majors, and keep them on the job.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, has proposed refocusing the law’s nearly $3 billion Title II teacher-quality fund on states that take aggressive efforts to directly address recruitment, teacher preparation, alternative licensure, retention, and differentiated salaries for teachers.

Ms. Haycock wants Title II to provide well-designed support and innovative incentives to raise teacher quality in the highest-poverty schools—and nothing else.

Christopher T. Cross, the author of the 2004 book Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age, and former assistant secretary of education for research and improvement under President George H.W. Bush, said it’s natural that amendments to the nclb law are needed.

“If you look at the original esea in 1965,” he said, “there were amendments the next year, and then again amendments in 1967, and they were all because of the need to perfect things in the law.”

What’s highly unusual, he said, is that there haven’t been amendments up to now, nearly five years after the act was passed, in part because neither the law’s original sponsors nor the administration “wanted to open it up and risk losing more than they could gain.”

Mr. Cross predicted that the law would not be reauthorized until 2009, after the presidential election. In the interim, he said, Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller have to educate new members of Congress about “why they passed the law, and get a different view than what they’re getting from people in their communities, which is probably mostly on the negative side.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Framing the Debate


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