Survey: Administrators Vexed By Mandates

By Jeff Archer — November 19, 2003 5 min read
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Little irritates Fred Morton more these days than mention of the No Child Left Behind Act. What proponents hail as a bold attempt to make schools work for every child, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Va., public schools sees as a mountain of needless paperwork, mandates, and unrealistic expectations.

“I think the law is an abomination,” said Mr. Morton, whose district serves 9,400 students in the southwestern part of the state. “It’s a stretch of credibility to think most people who voted for this law read every page of it, because if they did, you wouldn’t have much of what’s in there.”

The report, “Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What’s Needed to Fix Public Schools” will be available starting Nov.19 from Public Agenda.

If Mr. Morton sounds like a crank, he’s got lots of company. A new national survey of superintendents and principals shows widespread skepticism over the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. About half of those polled expressed the view that the federal legislation was either politically motivated or aimed at undermining public schools.

That such a large proportion of the leaders of the nation’s schools and districts see the landmark education law as less than benevolent is one of the most striking findings in the report slated for release this week from Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public-opinion organization based in New York City.

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See the accompanying charts, “Opinions About the No Child Left Behind Act.”

But even without the federal mandates, administrators polled complained, red tape from all levels of government impedes their efforts to raise student performance.

“These leaders, I think, clearly are saying they need the ability to allocate staff, time, and resources to those things that are essential to driving student learning,” said M. Christine DeVita, the president of the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which underwrote the study. “And if that means that some other things don’t get done, that should be OK.”

‘Around the System’

For the report, “Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What’s Needed to Fix Public Schools,” Public Agenda polled 925 school leaders and 1,006 district chiefs this past summer. The margin of error for the two nationally representative samples is 3 percentage points.

Although most respondents cited lack of money as their greatest concern, more than 80 percent of the administrators indicated at least some agreement with the statement that meeting local, state, and federal mandates “takes up way too much time.”

Principals, in particular, lamented teacher tenure, which 30 percent of the school leaders said made it “virtually impossible” to fire ineffective teachers. Special education was another sore point, with 88 percent of the superintendents at least partially agreeing that federal rules give parents of children in special education a sense of “entitlement” that makes them quick to threaten legal action.

Questions about the No Child Left Behind law drew some of the boldest responses. Nearly nine in 10 of the administrators polled voiced concern that the law represents an “unfunded mandate.” Among superintendents, 40 percent saw the law as “motivated by good intentions,” 31 percent called it a “disguised attempt to attack and destroy public education,” and 22 percent saw it as politically motivated. (Seven percent were unsure how to characterize the legislation.)

Mr. Morton wasn’t surprised at his colleagues’ views. For him, the Virginia superintendent said, the wide-ranging law has meant putting classroom aides through additional training, as well as filling out more paperwork to certify that his teachers are qualified and that his district doesn’t infringe on students’ right to pray.

Not everything in the law is bad, he added. He likes its focus on reading instruction and on helping groups of students traditionally vulnerable to academic failure. But he questions whether it’s possible to meet the law’s decree that all students meet high standards of achievement within 10 years—especially in a time when budgets have been shrinking.

“The task is set up in such a way that it can’t be completed,” Mr. Morton said. “And if that’s the case, someone has to ask why.”

No Passing Fad

The Public Agenda poll shows that about a third of the principals and superintendents surveyed similarly doubted that the federal law’s requirements could be met, and more than 60 percent felt it could succeed only if “many adjustments” were made. (Five percent of schools chiefs, and four percent of school leaders, thought it was workable as is.)

Leaders in the smallest districts were the most likely to see the legislation in a negative light, the study found.

While harboring suspicions about the law itself, respondents did show broader acceptance of the general movement to raise standards for student performance. Eighty-seven percent of district leaders agreed that standards, testing, and accountability were more than a passing fad; only 3 percent of superintendents thought standardized tests do more harm than good.

“The principles behind the law have taken root with all of these school leaders,” said Ruth A. Wooden, Public Agenda’s president.

U.S. Department of Education officials took issue last week with claims expressed in the poll that an ulterior motive lurks behind the No Child Left Behind Act, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda that passed with broad bipartisan support in Congress.

“That’s a really unfortunate misperception that some individuals have about this law,” said Daniel Langan, a department spokesman. “This is a positive law that was built upon the work that’s been happening in states for years.”

Judith Johnson, who helped write early drafts of the ESEA reauthorization as a senior official in the Education Department under President Clinton, understands administrators’ frustrations, especially now that she’s serving as the superintendent of the 3,500-student Peekskill, N.Y., schools.

“You set the goals high; otherwise, you have no chance of ever getting near them,” she said. “But make sure people have the resources and training they need to get as close to the goal as possible.”

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