Federal Opinion

Preparing for the Perfect Storm

By Susan B. Neuman — March 19, 2003 8 min read
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Against the tidal wave of changes in federal education law runs the potentially damaging crosscurrents of state budget crises.

There is a fascinating little scene in the beginning of the movie “About Schmidt.” Played by Jack Nicholson, Schmidt has decided the time has come to retire from his job as an insurance actuary. As the camera closes in, Schmidt is steadfastly watching the clock in his tiny, pictureless office, his boxes and his life all neatly stacked in the corner. And when the final second ticks by, at 5 p.m., he calmly turns off the lights, closes the door to his past, and seems to think little of the future.

For me, it wasn’t like that. I could neither leave the past nor ignore the future. Coming to the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 with a background as a researcher in reading and early childhood, I brought my past with me to serve as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. I did so for about two years, what I am told is the average stint in that post. And when I packed up a few weeks ago to return to the academy, I thought not only of the department’s accomplishments, but also of the tremendous challenges that lie ahead.

I joined the department because I believe in the blueprint of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. It represents for me the boldest effort to close the achievement gap since Congress first enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. Placing a premium on results over process, the law’s centerpiece is accountability—the linchpin for turning around low-performing schools. In very short order—by May 1 of this year—the Education Department is charged with getting these new accountability systems for all 50 states and the District of Columbia reviewed, approved, and up and running. The systems are required to disaggregate scores to ensure that all children, regardless of economic disadvantage, limited English proficiency, or minority status, achieve proficiency in both reading and mathematics by 2013. Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress within a specific timetable will be defined as “in need of improvement” and be subject to powerful sanctions, including the imposition of public school choice, supplemental services, corrective action, or reconstitution.

This timetable is, to put it mildly, highly ambitious. And the timing is not fortuitous. There is a perfect storm in the making. Against the tidal wave of changes in Title I runs another, potentially damaging crosscurrent. State budgets are in shambles. To date, more than 38 states have reported cuts in services. More troubling figures, and creative, quick-fix strategies to account for deficit spending, are reported daily. State education offices, never fully staffed to begin with, are further reducing their forces. And despite these economic pressures and dire predictions, more schools than ever before appear likely to be identified as “in need of improvement.”

Accountability, of course, is not new to this legislation. Most states have had some type of accountability system in place since the last authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But what is new is the No Child Left Behind Act’s specificity and rigor. Last year, the roster of schools not meeting their growth targets and failing to make adequate yearly progress included 8,652 schools.

For the first time, this president has made a conscious decision to name names—to identify schools that have educated only some children.

This number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Given that each subgroup of student, each subject matter (reading and math), each “other” academic indicator, as well as a below-par participation rate, may potentially trip a school into the category of not making adequate yearly progress, some people estimate that as many as 20,000 schools or more may be tapped as “needing improvement.” In fact, state projections from a recent conference of chief state school officers indicated that, in some states, from 33 percent to 86 percent of all public schools are likely to be subject to some type of sanction. This is not hyperbole, but fact. For the first time, this president has made a conscious decision to name names—to identify schools that have educated only some children, not all.

Gripped with serious budget shortfalls, states have shown a variety of reactions to the federal task of submitting a school improvement plan. Five states took up the challenge early, even with potentially large numbers of schools in need of improvement, and received approval for their plans on Jan. 8 of this year. But some states have hesitated, arguing that the strict regulations have failed the “Goldilocks” test (too few schools in need of improvement may not accurately portray the problem; too many may break the system). Others claim that reform is impossible without more resources. Still others throw up their hands in response to what they see as an unfunded mandate. And finally, some seem to hope that the law will simply go away or implode.

I won’t argue that more resources aren’t needed. They are. Nor do I claim that the regulations for accountability can’t be improved. They can. But back-pedaling, reversing course, lowering standards, or dismantling accountability systems entirely are not solutions. The bipartisan support for the No Child Left Behind Act reflects the will of a public hungry for better achievement and higher proficiency in math and reading for all children.

Still, it would be foolhardy for us to downplay or ignore the coming storm. State funding cutbacks hurt, and will clearly require that the federal government work more proactively with states than it has in the past. Pragmatically, states can begin to get ready by taking steps that include the following:

  • Differentiating interventions. Schools that fall short of adequate-yearly-progress goals because all groups of students fail to meet growth targets must be treated differently from those in which, for example, one subgroup does not meet adequate yearly progress. The former may need whole-school reform or dramatic administrative or programmatic shake-ups; the latter need specific interventions to focus intensively on the needs of the particular children whose progress is deficient. This is long overdue for some of the most academically vulnerable groups, projected by many states to include limited-English and special education students.
States need to work collaboratively in a more cost-effective way.

  • Using the transferability option. States should use this option more flexibly than they have thus far. They need no additional flexibility authority (state or local) to transfer up to 50 percent of their nonadministrative funds from programs not targeted to their greatest needs to other formula programs that are. Given the results-oriented climate, states should examine data to decide which of their programs represent the highest yield for achievement. National evaluations of a number of formula-funded programs have shown limited utility on student habits, social-emotional development, or achievement. Yet the benefits of using formula funds for preschool education have been shown. States will have to struggle with these tough decisions.

  • Collaborating with other states. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that states develop many assessments. Among the student assessments are not only those for grades 3-8 and for high school, but also for second-language learners in English, content standards, and science for students in three grade spans by 2007-08. The law also requires assessments for the quality of paraprofessionals, and for subject-matter specialization for teachers. Each state shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel and create multiple tests (sometimes in many languages); states need to work collaboratively to devise valid and reliable instruments in a more cost- effective way. In the past, the Education Department has given waivers for noncompliance, but that isn’t likely to happen in this administration.

  • Using research-based strategies. Much has been made of the frequent use of the term “scientifically based research” in the No Child Left Behind legislation—about 111 times, I am told. The phrase signals a move from process to results. And this shift must be reflected in how states and districts design their school improvement plans. So far, however, the plans tend to focus on changes in climate, collaboration, interaction, and governance structure. These magical terms have never produced gains in reading, writing, and mathematical skills. In contrast, the research base is pretty clear that coherent, consistent, and explicit skills-based instruction of greater duration and intensity does improve achievement. No surprises here.

  • Reading First. Even in this period of economic turmoil, President Bush has committed over $6 billion to improve reading instruction for disadvantaged children in grades K-3. Yet, surprisingly, some states have not applied for funding, perhaps in the hope that the formula funds will be available whenever they choose to apply. They are in for a rude shock when they discover that designated funds have been reallocated to states that have approved, rigorous plans in place. Reading First provides a historic opportunity to prevent reading difficulties in the first place, and states would be remiss to delay taking advantage of it.
Surviving this storm will require a federal partnership that recognizes the singular needs of each state.

Formidable challenges are ahead for the No Child Left Behind Act, to be sure. Successful implementation will demand a new way of working with states, one that represents a strong departure from the compliance mentality of the past. Surviving this storm will require a federal partnership that recognizes the singular needs of each state and works with the states by listening, assisting, and developing solutions tailored to their best interests—remembering all the while that accountability was designed not for sanctioning, but for improving schools.

And so as I leave the federal government, I remember vividly what brought me to Washington in the first place. The No Child Left Behind Act was never about politics as usual. It was about a fundamental belief in social justice: a belief that high-quality education should be an entitlement for all children, regardless of their life circumstance. To realize this goal, those who follow me at the Education Department will need to develop a new relationship with our state partners, recognizing that it is only through this collaboration that we can weather this perfect storm.

Susan B. Neuman resigned her post as the assistant U.S. secretary of education for elementary and secondary education in January. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, she is on leave from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where she is a professor of education.

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