Federal Opinion

The Snake in the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Woodpile

By James H. Lytle — February 06, 2007 8 min read
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In the first five years of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, much attention has been focused on implementation issues—from how to manage the increasing number of schools and districts “in need of improvement” or in “corrective action,” to problems with testing programs, adequate-yearly-progress reporting, and the law’s highly-qualified-teacher requirements. But looming in the background is an element that will soon raise the stakes for implementation, one that has received much less public discussion: the requirement that states intervene in schools and districts not meeting AYP requirements.

As Congress takes up the law’s reauthorization this year, it’s important to keep in mind the legislation’s time frame: Public schools and districts receiving federal funds must have all their students (less those with severely handicapping conditions) at proficient levels of performance in reading, mathematics, and science by 2014. The trick is that the performance standard increases every two years to ensure attainment of the required 100 percent proficiency. Thus, schools that have apparently been making progress are continually held to higher standards; those that have not been making adequate progress (even if they have shown improvement) have an even more difficult challenge; and those that have consistently met the standard may suddenly find their levels of performance no longer sufficient. As a result, the number of schools identified as needing intervention is likely to accelerate.

The emergent No Child Left Behind issue is the mandate that state departments of education intervene in schools (or districts) that have not made adequate progress for four or more years, and that the intervention follow the prescriptions in the federal legislation. These include the following (with the date they became applicable in parentheses):

    • Offer students public school choice (spring 2003).

• Offer “supplemental educational services,” or after-school tutoring (2003-04).

• Implement “corrective action” (2004-05).

• Replace school staff members (2005-06).

• Institute a new curriculum (2005-06).

• Decrease school management authority (2005-06).

• Extend the school year or day (2005-06).

• Bring in outside experts (2005-06).

• Restructure (2005-06).

If these actions do not produce the intended results, then the following additional prescriptions are available in 2007:

• Continue to offer choice and supplemental programs.

• Convert to charter schools.

• Make significant staff changes.

• Turn the school (or the district) over to a state agency or private firm.

There is no existing knowledge base in research or practice, however, that demonstrates whether universal proficiency is even possible. Nor is there accumulated research demonstrating that any of the sanctions mandated in the law, either singly or in combination, will lead to sustained improvement in student achievement or school performance. There are no explicit incentives offered—other than to avoid intervention, corrective action, reconstitution, or takeover. The presumption in the No Child Left Behind law is that the threat of sanctions will force schools and districts to implement research-tested best practices, yet the evidence on school change indicates that trust and willingness to risk are the precursors to sustained improvement.

The evidence to date for the efficacy of interventions already tried is limited. The choice sanction has been notably unsuccessful (fewer than 1 percent of eligible children participate), and the supplemental-services intervention has been the subject of heated controversy over who will provide the services and who will evaluate their effects. None of the other sanctions has yet been broadly enough implemented to yield a sufficient record for evaluation. But as the list of interventions indicates, spring 2007 is “showtime.” State departments of education and/or local school boards will have the authority and responsibility then to make drastic changes at schools that have not made progress.

Yet many states have not been able to manage relatively simple components of the No Child Left Behind Act, including timely AYP reporting, accounting for dropouts, and identifying highly qualified teachers. Nor have they been inclined to use the interventions available in 2005-06. Soon they will be responsible for leading improvement at a scale and depth they have so far been unable to demonstrate they can manage (see New Jersey’s 15-year record of urban-district takeovers as an example).

At this point, the typical state response to poor school performance is to organize “corrective-action teams” of experts (read state department employees and retired school administrators and teachers) and send them to schools to conduct inspections, typically for three to five days. A team writes a critique based on its review of school programs, staffing, and performance data; this is forwarded to the school, to be transformed into a plan for implementation in the coming months, all culminating with the next spring state-testing cycle. Other common solutions include sending in an “intervention specialist,” a “distinguished educator,” or a magician of a similar sort, who is expected single-handedly to turn around the failing school.

Shouldn’t the intervention timelines be postponed, modified, or extended until the knowledge base catches up with the policy?

Behind these strategies is the assumption that a school which has been unable to make adequate progress will seize upon a critique, defer to the experts, address all deficiencies, and make dramatic strides. The question of how the school suddenly develops the capacity or the inclination to do what it previously has been unable to is left unattended. (In my own experience, these corrective-action plans may have from 90 to 100 recommendations, but no discussion of funding or strategy.) The team walks away; the school is left to its own accord. The No Child Left Behind mandates have been served, and the state education department is in compliance.

My sense is that, so far, both states and districts have responded to low performance by creating the facade of intervention through assessment teams, intervention specialists, administrative and curriculum changes, and tight school improvement plans. But they have rarely used the responsibility implicit in the law to do the deep work, the re-imagining, the research and development that high levels of proficiency will require.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education has embarked on an ambitious program of basic research in such areas as cognitive sciences, and has charged its What Works Clearinghouse to identify effective interventions that practitioners and policymakers could access to deal with inadequate performance. By its own acknowledgment, though, the Institute of Education Sciences cannot currently provide the knowledge base that schools in corrective action would in theory need, if they were realistically expected to make the dramatic improvements in student achievement the No Child Left Behind law requires.

The modifications to the law under consideration by key members of Congress and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings include permitting “growth models” for assessing adequate yearly progress, providing financial aid and staffing incentives for schools not meeting proficiency goals, and improved assessment techniques for special-needs students and English-language learners. (“Bush to Start NCLB Push in Congress,” Jan. 10, 2007.) Each of these modifications might be welcomed by the practitioner community, but they are technical solutions, not innovations, and not likely to have more than an incremental effect on student performance.

Moreover, the education private sector (in contrast to the health-care and pharmaceutical industries) has been unwilling to provide the venture capital and investment that might lead to dramatic improvement. If Education Week’s advertisements are any indication, the private-sector solution seems to be to take existing test-item banks that various corporations already own, assign the items to designated state curriculum objectives, peddle “formative” assessments that use the items, feed the results into the great student database in the sky, and then claim that instruction should be designed to address the indicated deficits. Again, there is no evidence that this strategy will ensure that schools meet the law’s standards.

Thus the conundrum: How can schools and districts (and states, for that matter) be held to account for improvement that no one currently knows how to accomplish? Are the imminent sanctions really solutions? Shouldn’t the intervention timelines be postponed, modified, or extended until the knowledge base catches up with the policy?

Are the imminent sanctions really solutions?

The prospect of a rapid increase in the number of schools and districts in “corrective action” status and the inability of state departments of education to provide support and oversight are likely to open the door wide for private-sector management, choice, and consulting interventions. Leading-edge versions of this have already emerged in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and Cleveland, cities whose central offices are becoming management corporations for diverse sets of schools and services: charters, private and nonprofit corporately managed schools, special-needs student outplacements, tutoring services, packaged curricula, and voucher programs for private and parochial schools. An increasing number of urban districts are complying with No Child Left Behind mandates by outsourcing low-performing schools, then changing vendors in the instances when a school doesn’t make adequate progress. Yet none of the vendors has been able to demonstrate that it can intervene in low-performing schools, whether elementary or high schools, and consistently help those schools meet AYP-mandated levels of achievement. In effect, the districts move the walnut shells each time the Education Department can’t find the pea.

This spring, the growing number of schools and districts in corrective action will provide the prospect of expanded corporate entrée. Shareholders, CEOs, and state bureaucrats may prosper, but nothing would suggest that kids will be better served.

The right thing to do is to slow down the sanctions timetable until the reauthorization debate is completed, funding for necessary supports is in place, and a research base has been developed that undergirds the proposed interventions. Otherwise, we are conducting another grand experiment with those least able to control their fates.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as The Snake in the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Woodpile


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