What will it take to resuscitate No Child Left Behind?
It’s time to restart the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act. The necessary steps are straightforward, but the task is complicated because the patient doesn’t see that its useful life is threatened. The warning signs cross the geographic and political landscape of our nation, yet key members of the Bush administration, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Education deny that substantive revisions are needed. We disagree.
As superintendents of seven large school districts west of the Mississippi—districts with long histories of high student achievement—we support the central tenet of the No Child Left Behind legislation: every child in America making significant learning gains each year. It’s the work we’ve been doing in our districts for years.
We began our careers more than 20 years ago, when the challenge was to provide children with equal educational access and opportunity. We followed in the footsteps of visionary leaders who struggled to replace an education system segregated by race and handicapping condition with one that offered every child the opportunity to learn. But in the past 15 years, and on our watch, public schools have accepted the more fundamental responsibility of universal achievement.
Now, we face a paradox. Many people in our society, including some of the politicians who voted for the No Child Left Behind law, believe in the “bell curve” distribution of academic performance. The legislation requires every student to reach a proficient level, although a bell-curve distribution would say that is impossible. Consequently, we must lead our districts in achieving a monumental goal, while helping our constituents redefine reality in terms of student achievement. When school districts commit to success for every child, they must overthrow the prejudice of differentiated expectations and marshal the resources to take on a challenge that is the ethical and professional imperative of our time.
If the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act represents the noblest purpose of American public education, what is the explanation for the present circumstance that has state legislatures pitted against Congress, districts and state departments struggling with the federal Department of Education, and the national dialogue of school improvement mired in mandates and sanctions? What will it take to resuscitate No Child Left Behind?
It is going to take more than nibbling around the edges of the current law. And the changes that are needed are more substantive than the Department of Education’s recent advocacy of increased flexibility. From our perspective, there are three interrelated answers that are grounded in common sense. First, elements of “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, must be reconceptualized. Second, everyone with a stake in the success of our students and schools (that’s every citizen) must acknowledge the magnitude of the task. And third, the tone of the debate must shift from strident and adversarial to civil and collaborative.
Adequate Yearly Progress. The current definition of “adequate yearly progress” will kill the No Child Left Behind law. When we offer an explanation of AYP to our stakeholders, including lawmakers and business leaders, they are initially confused. As they absorb more details and ask clarifying questions, the confusion is often replaced with incredulity and anger. Our patrons are sophisticated consumers of public schooling and are quick to identify the weaknesses and question the fairness of many key elements in the No Child Left Behind law. They recognize a problem when they see one, and “adequate yearly progress” presents significant challenges to both logic and common sense.
From a layman’s point of view, the all-or- nothing nature of making or missing adequate yearly progress doesn’t compute. The explanation that one of our schools failed to make AYP because it missed the mark on one out of dozens of targets doesn’t wash with our well-informed constituents. Our patrons fully support the disaggregation of performance data for each subgroup and our accountability for closing achievement gaps. But the current expectations appear to be a federally sponsored game of “gotcha,” rather than a careful examination of a preponderance of evidence about the achievements of individual students, subgroups of students, and entire schools and districts. The law’s approach makes no more sense than expecting the stock market to go up every day in equal, minimum increments. To remedy this problem, adequate yearly progress must be altered to acknowledge reasonable progress over a reasonable amount of time, rather than the perfection called for in the law.
Other fundamental elements of AYP need to be reworked to include a growth model that will track the achievement of students over time. Comparing the performance of 3rd graders this year to a different cohort of 3rd graders the previous year misses the mark. We need year-to-year growth measures that help us judge the value-added impact of our work. The current AYP structure works against that determination by denying the importance of the longitudinal growth we rely on for illuminating school improvement.
We are equally convinced that the current testing expectations for English- language learners and special education students require significant revision beyond the recent changes released by the Department of Education.
Magnitude of the Task. When President Bush recently called on the nation to plan and execute a mission to put a man on Mars, members of the scientific community were energized, but realistically pointed out that this is more than just a “next step” in the exploration of space: It represents a quantum leap for mankind that will take enormous resources of talent, time, and dollars. Chief among the technical problems to be solved is the need for a new propulsion system that will make travel into space more than just a one- way adventure.
The No Child Left Behind Act’s goal of universal proficiency by 2014 is analogous to plans to send manned missions to Mars. The call for every child to be proficient represents the highest possible purpose for American public education, but making that call without marshaling the talent, time, and money that will be required leaves a hollow promise sure to be unfulfilled. This isn’t whining. It is a steely-eyed assessment of what will be called for, including the equivalent “advances in propulsion” for an educational undertaking yet to be achieved by any nation.
To help the American people understand the magnitude of the task, a more careful use of the phrase “fully funded” is imperative. The casual listener could logically assume that the costs of each state’s test creation, administration, and scoring are borne by the federal government. This is not the case. Further, the casual listener might assume that the changes in instructional programs, including the additional resources needed to bring every special education student, every English-language learner, indeed, every child in America to a proficient level, will be funded by the federal government. Again, this is not the case.
Reaching the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act will take enormous resources, with the federal government likely to continue paying the smallest share. That has to be stated clearly by everyone involved, and debated in relation to the goal.
Changing the Tone of Public Discourse. The reactions generated by this federal legislation are growing in volume and hostility. From our perspective as superintendents, this is not surprising. In our districts, if we fumbled the implementation of such a crucial initiative, we would already have been called on the carpet.
The No Child Left Behind mandates have been communicated with tones of hostility and arrogance, crossing the line from challenging schools and districts to improve to being adversarial and demeaning. They emerge from a mind-set that it is possible simply to legislate change without a foundation of collaboration. The results are predictable reactions of frustration and anger from local citizens, officials, and educators. And it doesn’t help for the U.S. Department of Education now to imply that the fundamental problems with the law result from the plans that the states wrote two years ago. At the time, state departments were responding to rigid guidelines, stated in no uncertain terms. If we are to have a fighting chance of reaching our goals for all children, the tone of public discourse about our public schools must change.
Our patrons are sophisticated consumers of public schooling and are quick to identify the weaknesses and question the fairness of many of the law's key elements.
The task ahead is monumental, and will require the best collective efforts of us all. We have experience with the truth of this concept. Seven years ago, our districts began working together to compare effective practices and to envision a future of constant improvement. The results of these collegial efforts have challenged assumptions, strengthened commitments, elevated our work, and enhanced student performance. The positive results are all around us in the lives of our students.
From our collaboration, we know that we will come closer to realizing our goals for children if we are all in this together—school districts, governors and state legislatures, state departments of education, and their federal counterparts. And we shouldn’t be surprised that such a bold and transformative vision would require adjustments in its implementation.
If the No Child Left Behind Act is to shift from rhetoric to reality, there is no time to lose. We must work together to see that common sense prevails and our children reap the benefits.
The authors are superintendents of the member districts of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium: David Benson, Blue Valley Unified School District, in Overland Park, Kan.; Monte Moses, Cherry Creek School District, in Greenwood Village, Colo.; Don Saul, Lake Washington School District, in Redmond, Wash.; Jack Erb, Peoria Unified School District, in Glendale, Ariz.; Doug Otto, Plano Independent School District, in Plano, Texas; Don Phillips, Poway Unified School District, in Poway, Calif.; and John Erickson, Vancouver School District, in Vancouver, Wash.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as CPR for the ‘No Child’ Law