Next round begins for No Child Left Behind
After five years, the education reform law has effected major change, but now must be voted on again by Congress.
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"It's been more effective at capturing attention and getting the rhetorical attention than in actually prompting people to go after the hard stuff they're going to need to go after to actually close these gaps," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which focuses on closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students. She credits NCLB with some improvement in the achievement gap, but would like to see teacher quality standards better enforced.Skip to next paragraph
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One change that seems likely to get traction is a shift toward a "growth" model of assessing schools, in which schools with students who come in far below grade level get credit for helping them make big strides, even if they still fall short of proficiency – so long as, the Department of Education emphasizes, they do get students to a proficient level eventually. The department has already approved pilot programs in five states, and wants Congress to include such a model in NCLB.
Still, some critics want far more sweeping changes. A coalition called the Forum on Educational Accountability now has more than 100 groups – including the NAACP and the National Education Association – which have signed a list of 14 requested changes to the law. They include lowering the current proficiency targets, providing more assistance to failing schools, getting rid of sanctions with less record of improvement, and encouraging testing designed to measure higher thinking skills and performance throughout the year.
"The goal [of NCLB] is reasonable – the structure and way it's been implemented have been a disaster," says Monty Neill, director of FairTest and chairman of the forum.
He says some sanctions, such as allowing students to attend another school, aren't working, and that the testing and annual progress requirements have caused many schools to narrow their curriculum and "teach to the test" in the months preceding it.
"We'd be better off putting money into the teachers, teaching them how to be better assessors, and building in methods for spot checking and getting feedback," Mr. Neill says.
While the conversation is heated, the likelihood that NLCB will be reauthorized this year may be small. An informal poll of Washington insiders conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that none believed it is likely this year, and most thought it would be put off until after the 2008 presidential election.
Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy of the foundation and an early supporter of NCLB, admits that by this point, he's convinced that the federal government simply can't accomplish what it wants. He'd keep the goals of NCLB, but put the federal government's effort into setting strong national standards – instead of the widely varying state standards that currently exist – and have the states and districts figure out on their own how to get students to meet those standards.
"What we've learned more than anything else is that the federal government isn't well-equipped to force school districts to do things they don't want to do," Mr. Petrilli says.
The Department of Education, meanwhile, asks critics to be patient.
"We're in such a different place" than we were five years ago, says Kerri Briggs, acting assistant secretary for policy. "Education reform is not necessarily speedy work. It's tough stuff and requires putting in new assessments, creating data systems, rethinking curriculum, new professional development for teachers.... We have a lot of heavy lifting left to do."