Americans grow skeptical as school reform takes toll

New surveys show public support for the goals - but not the effects - of No Child Left Behind Act.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The more Americans learn about Washington's new guiding hand in the nation's schools, the less they like it.

More than two-thirds say they don't think that a single test gives a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement, according to a new poll. They also don't believe that students with disabilities should be evaluated by the same standards as other students, the poll found.

Both points are linchpins of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

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In a separate survey, teachers cite compliance with new federal testing requirements as the most serious problem they face - more serious than lack of resources, incompetent administrators, student discipline, and personal safety issues.

These findings - from the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll and the National Center for Education Information - come at a critical time for NCLB, the signature domestic reform of President Bush's first term.

While the law isn't up for renewal until 2007, it has set off a backlash in many state legislatures. In response, the US Department of Education, which once claimed that no waivers would be allowed under the new law, has eased up on some requirements. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is considering further flexibility.

The Phi Delta Kappa poll, released Tuesday, is considered a bellwether of public attitudes toward schools. Over its 37 years, it has often produced anomalies. For example: While Americans think the nation's public schools are in trouble, they consistently give high marks to their own local schools. A similar rift shows up in the public views of NCLB.

"The most important finding is that the public wants the achievement gap closed, but does not approve of the strategies used in No Child Left Behind," says poll director Lowell Rose.

Support for law's goals

He adds that the good news for federal officials is that the public broadly supports the objectives of the new law - and that there is still time to fix it.

Some 90 percent of those polled say that it is important to close the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white classmates, and 58 percent agree that that responsibility belongs to the public schools.

But there is broad concern that the performance-based measures in NCLB can't measure how well a school is doing, he adds.

At the heart of the new law is a key assumption: What can be measured can be fixed.

States are required to set standards for reading and mathematics and test whether students are making adequate yearly progress toward meeting them.

If they're not, penalties kick in under the law, including a shift of federal funding from the school to parents. The parents can use the money to buy tutoring or other services for their children or to transfer to a better performing public school.

A key to the success of the law is how the public interprets failure to meet NCLB standards for adequate yearly progress - a growing problem nationwide.

Pointing the finger

Asked who is to blame if large numbers of public schools fail NCLB requirements, the public is split: 45 percent say the public schools are more to blame; 43 percent say they would blame the law.

But among those claiming to know a "great deal" about NCLB, 61 percent say the law is more to blame for poor results than the public schools.

Most public school parents still say they know little or nothing about the law.

"If they do not change that law, it's not if every urban school in Indiana will fail, it's when they'll fail," says Dr. Rose, who is also a consultant to the Indiana Urban Schools Association.

In Indiana, special education accounts totally or in part for more than three quarters of the failures of schools to meet new federal standards, he says.

"When we started polling about the new law, many thought that greater familiarity with the law might bring more approval. That does not appear to be the case," says Rose. With failure rates expected to continue to rise as the law takes hold, public opposition is expected to grow even more, he adds.

The poll released last week by the National Center for Education Information signals that teachers share public concerns about the new law. Eight-one percent of teachers surveyed say that compliance with NCLB is the most serious problem facing them.

They also strongly oppose using academic progress of students as measured by test scores to determine whether a teacher is qualified to teach.

New recruits more favorable

But teachers recruited into the profession by other routes - a group that now accounts for a third of new hires - are more open to performance-based measures, adds Emily Feistritzer, president of the education information center. These new recruits come to teaching after pursuing other professions, rather than through teacher-education programs.

"Usually the people entering teaching through alternative routes are more in favor of testing for students and using accountability measures than the profile of the traditional teaching force," she says.

Trouble for reforms

Most Americans disagree with key parts of President Bush's education reforms, says a new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll:

- 79% would rather see extra efforts to improve current schools than options for pupils to transfer to better performing ones.

- 68% don't think a single test provides a fair picture of how well a school is doing.

- 62% say that test scores of special education students should not be used in determining school performance.

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