As the No Child Left Behind Act furthers its influence on classrooms, a report scheduled for release this week sounds concerns about impending problems—from a lack of school choice options to inadequate staffing—that could undermine the law.
The third annual report on the federal law by the Center on Education Policy includes surveys of the states and more than 300 districts, charts federal actions on implementation, incorporates the comments of three public panels, and reviews existing research to take a snapshot of the effect the NCLB law has had on achievement and changes in schools nationally.
Although the independent Washington-based research group is pleased with the gains in student achievement, there are some warning signs to heed, according to the center’s director, Patricia F. Sullivan.
She cited what the center views as unrealistic time frames for student achievement and “adequate yearly progress.” Also, the law’s school choice provisions do not appear to have had much effect, Ms. Sullivan said. (“NCLB Guidance,” Mar. 16, 2005.)
Plenty of Questions
One of the center’s top concerns is capacity, and it warns that many states and districts lack the funding or staff to carry out the law.
Further, Ms. Sullivan added, the center has many questions about the supplemental educational services that districts with failing schools must provide: Are the services working? Are they a good use of funding? And can states oversee the programs?
“Those are questions we are going to have to dig into, because we need more information,” she said.
Researchers say such data are vital to evaluate the effectiveness of the 3-year-old revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and guide lawmakers in their discussions of the measure and any necessary changes.
The center “performs a valuable service by attempting to compile as much information as possible on the impact of No Child Left Behind, in a way few other organizations are doing,” said Wayne Riddle, an education finance specialist for the federal Congressional Research Service.
The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment last week because officials there had not had time to review the 400-plus pages of the document.
Although a majority of states and districts surveyed reported gains in student achievement, it still may be too early to see the full effects of the law’s achievement goals, the report says.
Overall, 36 out of 49 states and 72 percent of the 314 districts surveyed reported that student achievement was improving, and many reported that achievement gaps between minority and white students were narrowing. But many state and district officials interviewed for the study questioned the fairness of the methods they must use to determine adequate yearly progress, and said the goal of having all students proficient in math and reading by 2014 was unrealistic.
The most serious sign of trouble, according to the analysis, is the inability of states and districts to help low-performing schools, both through funding and staffing.
“States and districts told us they lacked capacity to help all schools identified as in need of improvement,” the report says. “They also said they are not prepared to monitor the quality of the entities offering supplemental education services.”
School choice, meanwhile, may not be making an impression. Districts reported that only about 1 percent of eligible students had transferred from low-performing schools this school year.
Under the law, students in Title I schools deemed to be failing for two consecutive years must be given the opportunity to transfer to another school. They must be offered supplemental services, such as free tutoring, if their schools cannot meet their performance targets for a third year.
Of the districts surveyed, only 3 percent of districts reported that the school choice provisions were having a positive or somewhat positive effect on achievement. More than two-thirds said they didn’t know what effect the provisions have had.
Districts and states also reported experiencing problems in carrying out the school choice provisions, such as being unable to identify the schools needing improvement before the start of the school year and trouble in maintaining class-size limits in schools eligible to receive student transfers. Many districts reported that neighboring districts did not want to accept low-achieving students.
Some districts said they offered supplemental educational services to students unable to transfer.