On April 19, Joel Packer, the National Education Association’s manager of policy for federal education legislation, and Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, fielded questions about how the nation’s top two teachers’ unions are trying to influence the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: Why isn’t the National Education Association doing more to educate the public about the problems of this law?
Packer: The NEA is involved in a major effort to educate its members as well as the public. Our Web site, www.nea.org, has a wealth of information about our concerns with the law.
We believe that No Child Left Behind has fundamental flaws: It is too focused on test scores; limits how test scores are used in measuring student learning; is a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing system that fails to distinguish between schools that fall short of one of 37 measures and those that fall short on all; and is too focused on sanctions that have little to do with improving student achievement.
Question: Highly regarded academic researchers like Jim Cummins have said for years that English-language learners need seven to 10 years to become fluent in academic English. Why is this respected work disregarded by the writers of NCLB? Demanding academic fluency within the guidelines of the law seems to be planning for student failure.
Packer: You raise an important point. We are concerned that the accountability system in NCLB, called adequate yearly progress, or AYP, fails to test and count test scores from English-language learners in a valid and reliable manner.
In too many cases, ELL students are being given reading and math tests in English before they are proficient in the language. Also, accommodations provided are often of limited value and questionable validity.
We believe the federal government needs to do much more to assist states and districts in improving the quality of assessments for ELL students, providing native-language assessments, and improving the quality and validity of accommodations. We do think it is appropriate to extend the current one-year exemption for newly arrived immigrant students’ tests scores counting for AYP purposes to three years. Another option might be to link the English-language-proficiency tests and the academic-content tests and give each one proportional weighting in determining whether this group of students makes AYP.
Question: How much per-pupil funding is required to meet the academic needs of students in schools identified as in need of improvement?
Cortese: Good interventions cost money. Currently, schools don’t have the funds to provide what it takes to raise student achievement: extended school day or year, smaller class sizes, high-quality early-childhood education, intensive reading and math interventions.
Question: While I agree that students in special education should be held accountable for grade-level content, I don’t agree with the way they are assessed. Why is a student who is in the 8th grade and reads at a 3rd grade level, and who receives all core classes (8th grade content) at a 3rd grade reading level, expected to take a standardized test at an 8th grade reading level? This is not an accurate representation of the student’s content knowledge. It only shows that he or she is a struggling reader. Wouldn’t it be more equitable (and produce more accurate readings of content knowledge) to test such students at the level they are taught?
Cortese: Individualized-education-program teams include parents, classroom teachers, and others who work closely with children on a daily basis and are best able to make these decisions about assessments. The American Federation of Teachers recommends that IEP teams decide how students participate in assessments, including alternate assessments, modified assessments, or assessments with accommodations.
Question: One could argue that the NCLB law took a step forward by defining professional development and making it clear that one-day or short-term workshops are not appropriate activities under the law. Please discuss further refinements in the law that you believe are necessary to improve the quality of professional development and its effects on teachers’ performance.
Packer: The NEA agrees that high-quality professional development for teachers, especially that which is linked to their individual classroom instructional needs, is a critical element in improving teacher quality and student learning.
We support the standards developed by the National Staff Development Council, and have suggested that such standards be incorporated into the law. We also believe that having teacher input into the professional development they receive is important, so that teachers can identify their needs and not just receive generic professional development that fails to directly help them improve.
Question: Can you please discuss whether the unions feel that enforcement under the NCLB law could run afoul of collective bargaining agreements, and whether Section 1116(d) removes much of the teeth behind the law. Do the unions see future filings of individual grievances based on NCLB enforcement? Will they lobby to have similar protections placed in the reauthorization?
Cortese: Broadly speaking, we believe school improvement and collective bargaining go hand in hand. The law clearly—and wisely—states that its interventions for schools that don’t make AYP can’t trump collective bargaining agreements. We certainly want to make sure that this provision remains in a reauthorized law.
Question: Research shows that the achievement gap exists before children’s entry to kindergarten. Would you support amending the law in a manner that would expand access to and improve the quality of prekindergarten programs?
Packer: You are absolutely correct. The NEA strongly believes that all children should have access to high-quality pre-K and other early-childhood-education programs. We do support adding to the law a program that would provide funds to states and schools to initiate and expand pre-K programs.
Question: Without national and state accountability built into our school systems, how will we effect long-term change in the performance of our students and teachers?
Cortese: The NCLB law mandates a state and local accountability system for identifying schools where student performance has not met proficiency standards. We believe schools ought to get credit for progress—under any accountability system.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as chat wrap-up: Unions and No Child Left Behind