A Feb. 8 online discussion centered on ideas for improving the federal No Child Left Behind Act, specifically the intensive review of the law undertaken by one community, Rockland County, N.Y., which resulted in a 72-page report with recommendations for changes. On hand to answer readers’ questions were Harriet Cornell, the chairwoman of the Rockland County legislature, and David M. Fried, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction of the East Ramapo Central School District, one of eight districts in the county. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: Based on what has occurred so far, what in the current law is working and what is not? What are the advantages and disadvantages of renewing or reforming the law?
Cornell: Let me put it this way. The goals are great. Some things are working well. Some things could work well with revisions. And some things don’t belong there at all. We talk about all of these in our report.
In a nutshell: Positive attributes of the law include the requirement to disaggregate data, which has helped focus attention on children who may traditionally have fallen through the cracks; placing the elimination of the achievement gap on the national agenda; identifying gaps and requiring us to look at all children; and insisting upon strong learning standards. Although New York has had excellent learning standards since 1994, some other states were without such standards, so the emphasis on strong learning standards is very positive. No Child Left Behind has further stimulated an important dialogue about educational standards in the United States.
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We are concerned, however, that the formulas for determining proficiency are complex and sometimes unreliable, and we cite a number of examples in our report where the difference between a passing and failing school can come down to the performance of one or two children. We are saddened that the law’s exam-centered focus is leading to the diminution of experiential-learning opportunities and may be taking the joy out of learning. We are frustrated that 34 percent of the federal funds promised nationally over the first five years of the NCLB law was not forthcoming. What we call the “heart and soul” expenditures that had been enthusiastically endorsed by Congress, such as smaller class sizes, new and revised curricula, and after-school, weekend, and summer school programs, have had to compete with mandated costs to implement the law’s tremendous data-collection and reporting requirements.
In New York state, another very expensive component is the cost associated with scoring the exams. We go into this in detail in our report, which explains the cost of substitute teachers, the loss of instructional time, and more.
We believe that the punitive nature of the law and the destructive consequences of placing unrealistic and underfunded mandates on struggling schools are creating a Catch-22, making it increasingly difficult for many underperforming schools to attain the level of adequate yearly progress required.
Question: Where is the emphasis on writing in the NCLB law? It is a crime to focus so narrowly on reading and math, to the peril of other important skills.
Fried: The NCLB legislation states that students will be tested in mathematics and language arts (and, beginning this year, in science). It is my understanding that the U.S. Department of Education allows states to use reading tests to assess language arts. I agree with you that this could tend to narrow the instructional focus and push writing instruction to the back burner. As you know, the best literacy instruction tightly integrates reading and writing. Summative language arts assessments should reflect that integration.
New York state’s English-language-arts tests in grades 4 and 8 require students to write essays based on multiple texts on the same topic. New York’s high school English exam, given over two days, requires much writing of a varied nature. It is important to note that New York’s learning standards, and the assessments based on them, were in place long before this federal law.
Question: One of the law’s least successful components has been the requirement to have equal percentages of “highly qualified” teachers in high- and low-poverty schools. Are there successful models for recruiting and retaining the best teachers for high-poverty schools?
Cornell: The No Child Left Behind Act mandated that 100 percent of teachers be highly qualified in core subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year. In May of 2006, however, the Education Department said that not a single state would be able to meet this requirement. We believe the mandate is ill-defined and can be harmful to poorer school districts. David Fried, a key member of the team that studied NCLB in Rockland, and a guest panelist today as well, spent most of his career as an educator in high-poverty schools. His experience was that when there is an excellent principal who has worked with staff members to create a successful culture for learning, teacher retention is not much of a problem. In other words, good leadership can overcome the challenges of poverty with regard to teacher retention. We have heard of districts elsewhere in which the boards of education, superintendents, and teachers’ unions have collaborated to devise a plan of incentives to have strong, experienced teachers transfer into the most challenging schools. These may provide the good models you asked about.
Question: How does the No Child Left Behind Act affect the community of trust in the school between teachers and school leaders?
Fried: The overemphasis on testing that the law fosters is a powerful, anxiety-producing force that has a real tendency to reshape classrooms into “test-prep factories.” It takes strong district and school leadership to consistently communicate to teachers that we expect and need them to teach to the curriculum and not the test, that we trust that the test results will be fine if teachers provide exciting, high-level instruction based on accepted learning standards. Good school leaders know what is happening in every classroom in the school, and they correctly do not base their supervision of teachers on the results of one or two summative tests. It is a shame that our current federal education law is based on punishment and a lack of trust, on testing to identify “failure,” rather than specific strengths and weaknesses. School leaders must work hard to ensure that the federal lack of trust does not trickle down to affect the culture of their schools.
Question: How important is it for taxpayers, students, and teachers to see tests—not just scores, but the questions and answers—and compare test blueprints with standards, the curriculum, classroom instruction, and the reasons students may have answered the questions the way they did?
Fried: What you are suggesting is very important if the tests are to be used for educational purposes. In New York state, all of the NCLB tests are completely available to the public, once the testing period is over. Unfortunately, this is not so in many states, where the tests are secure instruments. In most New York school districts, we produce item analyses of each test, informing teachers of the test tasks that students did well or not so well on. We also are able to give question-by-question reports to teachers as to how individual students did on specific testing objectives. As you know, the No Child Left Behind law does not require this instructional use of testing. The legislation calls for testing solely for accountability purposes. It is up to individual states to do more.
Question: What would schools look like if teachers weren’t behind closed doors, driving their children towards higher test scores, ignoring the skills, capacities, and dreams that make them human in the first place? What would our country and the world look like?
Cornell: Schools might look like the eight districts in our county that entered a partnership 11 years ago with families, public and private agencies, and community organizations, all working together to help children reach their optimal development. This is a formal collaboration, known informally as Rockland 21C.
Higher test scores should not be the dreams of children. They should be dreaming of inventions, adventures, and faraway places. They should be playing. They should be learning to unlock the secrets of the world through books and study and questions and experiences. Teachers should be able to use their creativity to excite children about learning, as good teachers do every day. I am not a teacher, but I still remember how my 3rd grade friends and I would argue about which one of us would be Miss Sheard, our teacher, when we played school. Of course we should have high standards and accountability, but there also should be flexibility and assistance, where now, under NCLB, there is a one-size-fits-all approach and punitive measures.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Improving No Child Left Behind: A Local Perspective