Local discontent with 'No Child Left Behind' grows

'Hot spot' states could expand to eight, a new report finds. But supporters of the law still say it's effective.

Just as students are heading back to school, frustration with the federal No Child Left Behind education law is hitting new heights at the grass-roots level from Maine to California.

Three states are already in open rebellion: Connecticut, Utah, and Colorado, which have either planned lawsuits or passed laws that trump the federal mandates. At least five other states - Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, and Virginia - are deemed "hot spots" that could join the revolt in the coming school year. And a total of 21 states are now considering some kind of legislation critical of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to a study released this week by the Civil Society Institute, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Massachusetts.

It rounded up a report of this dissatisfaction to call attention to what it says is a disconnect between the federal government and the educators, students, parents, and local lawmakers that live with NCLB every day.

The law's supporters counter that it is working, with test scores going up. They acknowledge there's frustration, but they contend it has more to do with the level of federal intervention in what used to be a primarily state and local issue. They also praise the federal Department of Education (DOE) for being flexible in dealing with state concerns.

But several independent education experts, as well as state legislators from both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle, say that even with this flexibility, frustration is on the rise.

"There is a palpable increase in the level of dissatisfaction that I see, but it's not being translated into legislation in Congress," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington. "There's really a disjuncture here between a growing dissatisfaction and the lack of a political response."

The roots of frustration

The frustration on the local level has to do with what educators call the rigidity of the law, which requires high-stakes, standardized testing and penalizes schools deemed as failing to make "adequate yearly progress." They're also concerned about a lack of funding to pay for the testing and the remedial services needed to ensure students make the grade.

For instance, Connecticut estimates it will cost the state $41.6 million more to implement NCLB than the federal government is providing. Local communities will bear additional costs, too.

The White House and the DOE dispute that. They point to two studies done by the Government Accountability Office in New Jersey and Massachusetts that found those states had enough federal resources to implement the law. They also note that since NCLB was passed, federal education spending has increased more than 30 percent.

"It is unfortunate that some appear to think that reform is more trouble than it's worth," says DOE spokeswoman Samara Yudof. "No Child Left Behind is working: Evidence from both the Nation's Report Card and the states' own data prove it."

Although test scores are going up, they were before NCLB was passed, as well. That's because of state education reforms and testing protocols put into place over the past 25 years. Indeed, there's been no research to determine which reforms get credit for the increasing scores. But many teachers and local legislators credit the earlier state improvements, and they're concerned that NCLB mandates are actually undermining their students' long-term success.

They argue that the high-stakes nature of NCLB's test encourages "teaching to the test" and actually undermines learning and critical-thinking skills. At the same time, they contend, NCLB mandates drain resources from key enrichment programs.

"The consequences especially for minority students are more and more tragic, and you see it in the data," says Sylvia Bruni, assistant superintendent of the Laredo, Texas, Independent School District. "We have enormous dropout rates, in my community as many 30 percent of all students.... Statewide there's a marked decline in the number of students who are prepared for higher education."

Ms. Bruni says that one of the biggest indications of NCLB's failure comes from the business community, which has found that students are "graduating as poor communicators, really weak critical thinkers, weak problem solvers."

But other states and school districts maintain that the law is having its intended effect of raising not only test scores, but also students' overall preparedness for the global economy.

For example, every single jurisdiction in the state of Maryland improved in performance in the past year, according to State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick. She credits NCLB, which she says forces schools to be in a "mode of continual improvement, raising the bar."

"In the past, even in some of our best schools, we've hidden behind the averages, and there were children who were not making substantial progress," she says. "The law ... now requires us to look at every subgroup. I actually think that's an extremely positive thing. We're never going to overcome an achievement gap ... until we do this."

NCLB's advocates also note the DOE has reached out to states to understand their concerns. Of the 40 states that have asked for waivers recently, more than 35 have been granted, according to the DOE.

More dollars

But even strong supporters of the law say that some of the regulations "need adjustment" and more funding would be helpful. Superintendent Grasmick notes that part of Maryland's success was a result of the state legislature approving an additional $1.3 billion in funds to help implement the program over five years.

"I know that's not true in a lot of states," she says. "They've actually experienced cuts in funding."

Several US representatives and senators are reportedly working on bills to amend NCLB in the upcoming legislative session, but few education experts believe it will happen before 2007, when the law comes up for reauthorization. But as the calls for change increase on the local level, that may change.

"I think the dissatisfaction will continue to grow," says Reggie Felton, director of federal relations with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "That will result in a stronger sense of urgency in congressional districts, which will then result in members of Congress saying, 'We can't wait. We must act now because I'm up for reelection."

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