Federal

In Hearings, Poll, PEN Finds Support for Goals of NCLB

By Lynn Olson — March 16, 2005 5 min read
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State legislators may be chafing under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, but the public strongly supports the federal law and doesn’t want to see its goals diluted, according to a report scheduled to be released this week.

See the online survey results, as well as national and state reports from Public Education Network.

The report, by the Washington-based Public Education Network, summarizes findings from nine public hearings in eight states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas—during the summer and fall of last year, as well as the results of an online survey to which some 12,000 people responded. It is not a nationally representative sample.

“The hearings and the survey made clear that the American public strongly endorses the goals of No Child Left Behind and supports its continuation,” says the report by PEN, a national association representing local education funds. At the same time, it continues, the public has some strong opinions about better ways to implement the law.

For example, while a majority of those surveyed support the requirement for breaking down performance data for certain groups of students, such as those who are poor or speak limited English, they also expressed worries about the unintended consequences if some groups of students are blamed for labeling a school “in need of improvement.” The group most often singled out is children with disabilities, for whom parents viewed grade-level tests as often inappropriate and unfair.

Parents and community members also expressed concerns during the hearings about the stigma associated with labeling a school, which they said was hugely demoralizing for students, parents, and communities.

And while the public wants schools to be held accountable for student achievement, they’re troubled by the law’s focus on a limited set of annual tests to measure performance.

Some 300 parents, students, businesspeople, and community groups presented formal testimony at the hearings; in addition, hundreds more attended the events. Many argued for more sophisticated and varied assessments that could be used for diagnostic as well as accountability purposes. About nine in 10 survey respondents felt that a single annual test cannot accurately measure whether an individual student or a school is performing satisfactorily.

Credit for Progress

Students, in particular, complained that opportunities for real learning often were being subsumed by low-level drills and test-preparation activities. “I feel as if I am going to school for the sole purpose of learning how to pass the tests,” testified Jamie Smith, a junior at the Austin Community Academy High School in Chicago.

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Chart: Gauging Views on Teachers

Students in several hearing sites were upset that Advanced Placement and honors courses had been sacrificed to focus on remedial work for low performers. Parents and education advocates also testified about the loss of enrichment and other supports for gifted children because of the change in priorities.

“In every hearing, just about every person who got up talked about this issue” of testing and the potential narrowing of the curriculum, said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of PEN. While people want tests, she said, “testing cannot be used to create an environment in which learning feels like it is a punishment, and the teachers feel like they’re drill sergeants.”

To reduce the pressures generated by test-based accountability, PEN suggests that schools receive credit for students who make significant progress toward meeting proficiency targets, not just for those who cross the bar. At the same time, Ms. Puriefoy said, the public wants to see real gains that put schools on track for meeting their goals under the federal law.The nonprofit organization also notes that states, which set the targets, face no consequences when large numbers of students fail to make those goals. “Penalties should be imposed upon states, parallel to those imposed upon districts,” it says, when too few students within a state make their targets.

The report points out that frustrations directed at the NCLB law, especially over funding, often stem from inadequate state actions that predate the 3-year-old federal law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“The poor facilities, old textbooks, unprepared teachers, as well as budget cuts that were devastating some schools, result from years of underinvestment in public education,” the report says. “Now that federal mandates and their ensuing costs cover every school, it will be up to states to fill in the gaps. If state policymakers avoid addressing this problem, they risk further frustrating a public that is finding its voice.”

Information Gap

Parents and community groups also complained that information about school performance, teacher quality, and other measures required under the law often is not widely available or is difficult for parents and the public to understand. (“NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up,” this issue.)

Federal officials could do a better job enforcing the law, so that states and districts provide more information in a comprehensive, timely, and accessible manner, the report suggests.

“We can consistently report baseball scores,” Ms. Puriefoy said. “We have to find some way of consistently giving out a level of information that people can use … to be more effective in helping their schools to get better in their communities.”

According to the survey, only about one-fourth of noneducators had received information about the qualifications of teachers in their local schools, even though the data are supposed to be part of schools’ reports to the public.

The public also questioned whether state licensing systems are adequate to determine who is a “highly qualified” teacher and who is not. In addition to subject-matter knowledge, parents and students talked about teachers who have high expectations for students, are willing to go the extra mile, feel a personal responsibility for student learning, and can teach in classrooms with a lot of student diversity.

“When we talk about the highly qualified teacher who has a doctorate in a certain subject and a teacher who understands students, the teacher who understands the students is the one who’s going to get through,” testified Lamonte Jones, a recent high school graduate and a student member of the Sacramento, Calif., school board.

Witnesses also testified that transferring students out of schools in need of improvement to better-performing schools was not a viable option. Information about the choice options was often unavailable, late, or incomplete, they said. And many preferred to see their neighborhood schools get the resources to improve.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as In Hearings, Poll, PEN Finds Support for Goals of NCLB

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