A new report urges the Bush administration to be flexible in enforcing the myriad requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, warning that a rigid approach could turn states and localities from genuine efforts to make the law work to “mere technical compliance.”
Based on an extensive review of how federal and state officials are handling the law, which marks its first birthday this week, the report from the Center on Education Policy examines several key areas of compliance—such as assessment and accountability demands—and offers recommendations for the future.
“Our study found that the states are committed to the goals of the legislation and are trying hard to carry them out, but the prescriptive nature of the requirements is causing great concern,” writes Jack Jennings, the director of the center and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee, in a commentary accompanying the report. The report was scheduled for public release on Jan. 3.
The Washington-based center spent five months this past summer and fall reviewing implementation of the law by the Department of Education and states. The center reviewed plans states submitted to the department spelling out their strategies for compliance, conducted confidential interviews with state administrators in almost every state, and analyzed the department’s recent guidance and regulations.
In a preamble to final Title I regulations issued in November, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said that the department had tried to provide states with “additional flexibility wherever possible,” while faithfully implementing the “very specific, rigorous requirements” in the law. (“Final Rules Give States Direction, Little Flexibility,” Dec. 4, 2002.)
The new report says states are making headway in meeting the demands for standards and assessments, because those are areas in which they already have extensive experience, but they are moving more slowly in less familiar areas. Those more difficult new responsibilities, the study found, include drawing up lists of approved providers of supplemental educational services, helping school districts assess the qualifications of Title I instructional aides, and providing guidance to districts about which instructional practices are based on scientific research.
State officials interviewed for the center’s report offered a mixed review of the Education Department’s record in developing and distributing detailed information about how to comply with the law. A majority of states rated the quality of guidance and regulations as “good to fair.” The guidance on assessments and teacher quality received higher ratings than that for scientifically based research.
States, however, gave the agency lower marks on the timeliness for releasing documents. Nearly seven in 10 surveyed rated the department’s efforts as “fair” or “poor” in that category. The department originally had been expected to release final Title I regulations last summer.
But when those rules were issued in November, the department’s undersecretary, Eugene W. Hickok, said that, based on his knowledge of past ESEA reauthorizations, this was the first time that final regulations had been issued within a year of such overhauls of the law. “That’s no small accomplishment,” he said then.
The report also contends that insufficient funding from the federal government jeopardizes the ambitious goals of the new law.
“The act is asking states to do more than ever before at a time when most states are facing severe financial strains,” the report says. It warns that if the “modest increase” President Bush proposed for the law’s programs in fiscal 2003 prevails, states and districts will be hard-pressed to carry out the many new demands.
The Bush administration and some leading Republicans in Congress have contended that there is sufficient money to meet the demands of the law. The Education Department’s budget has more than doubled in the past six years, they note. Mr. Bush’s proposed fiscal 2003 budget requested a $1.4 billion increase over fiscal 2002, or 2.8 percent, for the department.
The first order of business for the new 108th Congress, which convenes this week, is expected to be completion of work on the overdue spending bills for fiscal 2003, which began Oct. 1.
The toughest task, according to the state officials surveyed for the report, is devising suitable plans in each state for evaluating if schools are making “adequate yearly progress” in raising student achievement. Under the law, states are expected to make steady gains toward ensuring all students meet a state standard of proficiency within 12 years, and must show consistent progress for various subgroups of students.
The report says the rules for determining such progress “present practical and technical dilemmas that could result in large numbers of schools being identified for improvement.” And it urges officials to “tone down the rhetoric” about the law, warning against “making grand promises ... because the challenges of carrying them out will soon become very clear.”
The Center on Education Policy’s report is the first stage in a six- year project by the research organization to monitor implementation of No Child Left Behind. This analysis focused mainly on states and the federal government, while future editions will pay more attention to districts.