Bush education law transforming schools

Two years on, the 'No Child Left Behind' law draws continued criticism - and shifts focus to worst-off students.

In just two years, a new federal law has shaken up what it means to be a successful school.

For the past half century, American public schools have been defined by how well most of their children succeed. Schools (and local real estate agents) touted high "average" SAT scores or the students winning top awards.

The No Child Left Behind law shines a bright light on the students who aren't making the grade. For the first time, the federal government is enforcing a requirement that all public-school students be tested annually in core subjects. For the first time, the students in each racial, ethnic, and income subgroup are expected to show results. And for the first time, schools face the prospect of losing federal funding if those results aren't there.

By defining the good school as one that proves all students are learning, the act is already reshaping US education in controversial ways.

Among the criticisms: The requirements don't come with enough new money to pay for them. The new focus on the worst-off kids means the gifted children are now being left behind. The law is prompting some states - which must each create their own tests - to game the system by setting low standards.

Even supporters say it's too early to know if the law will be successful. But to them, President Bush's signature of the measure in 2002 came as a long-overdue call for accountability: that measuring performance is Step 1 toward better US schools. The intensity of the backlash by groups such as teachers unions, they say, only shows the law is hitting its mark.

"I never believed that in my lifetime we would have a federal law grounded in the belief that all children can learn. Such moments are scarce. This bus will only come by every few decades and we need to seize this opportunity," says Larry Lezotte, one of the founders of the Effective Schools Movement, which pioneered many of the principles in the new law.

But the laws critics are as passionate as its defenders. Democratic presidential candidates all mentioned it - negatively - in a debate this week. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean describes the law as "an unbelievable, intrusive mandate." Many teachers worry it will convert classrooms into dull test-prep centers.

This year a turning point

The two-year mark is a turning point for the new law. New measures are in place, and penalties are beginning to kick in. Nearly half of all states now require testing in English and mathematics in Grades 3-8 and high school, a requirement of the new law by 2005-06. Schools that don't measure up risk losing federal funding or even restructuring.

Already, all 50 states have filed new state standards with the US Department of Education as well as plans to ensure students are proficient in meeting them by the 2013-14 school year. This fall all states were required to report, many for the first time, high school graduation rates and the number of highly qualified teachers in classrooms.

Indeed, the first sign that the new law is taking hold is the volume of data on US students and schools - much of it controversial and never before circulated. These include data on teacher quality and high school graduation rates.

Such data will be used as a baseline to assess progress over the next decade. Even though Washington still provides only about 7 percent of public school funding, it aims to use those dollars to leverage changes in local schools.

"A few states have been forthright with their teacher quality data. But that some states have no data and most have questionable data reflects a shameful inattention to basic issues," concludes a report by the Education Trust, which analyzed the required September 1 state filings.

Enforcement key to law's impact

The law's impact relates to enforcement as much as its provisions.

Many of the requirements sparking protests have been federal law for nearly a decade. During the Clinton presidency, Congress required that all states should define standards for what students should know at each grade level, measure whether all groups are achieving them, and ensure that there are highly qualified teachers in every classroom. But President Bush's law has tight deadlines and tough penalties.

These include requirements that schools deemed "in need of improvement" pass their federal dollars to parents in the district, to pay for alternative educational services such as tutoring. Parents can also transfer students to a higher-performing public school.

In one response to criticism the US Department of Education allowed schools to give alternative tests to their most severely disabled students, so long as they represent no more than 1 percent of the students tested.

More broadly, nearly 3 in 4 school principals in one survey say the law relies too much on testing. Most also say the law's sanctions are unfair.

For Maria Mendez, the parent coordinator of Irvington Elementary School in Brooklyn, N.Y., the law is forcing children to become "statistics," and teachers to "teach to the test." "This test is for failure. It's not helping our children. It's helping our children to fail and to have low self-esteem. Sometimes they cry," she says. [Editor's note: The original version gave the incorrect location for Irvington Elementary School.]

But for many states and school districts, the new law could wind up costing them more than it provides. "We started running the numbers and concluded that No Child Left Behind will cost us three times what we would get [from Washington] just in the remedial stuff, not counting the cost of high-quality teachers," says William Mathis, superintendent of schools in Brandon, Vt.

That explains why some school districts may opting out of federal funding rather than trying to comply with the law. Others, like Reading, Pa., are launching lawsuits against states for not providing adequate funds to carry out the new law.

Kimberly Chase in New York contributed to this report.

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