No Child Left Behind: Promises and Practical Realities
The Background of No Child Left Behind year before "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) became the law of the land, President George W. Bush set the tone for the emerging legislation, saying it would be "the cornerstone of my Administration." He also stated that "too many of our neediest children are being left behind." And when Bush signed NCLB into law on January 8, 2002, he had seemingly achieved strong bipartisan support for a major overhaul of how teachers and schools are to be held accountable for the successes or failures they demonstrate in their efforts to educate children. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, a long-time strong education advocate, was invited to participate in the ceremony, and to be photographed with Bush at the signing. There was much fanfare, posturing, polemics and press coverage. However, two years after Bush had called NCLB "the cornerstone" of his presidency, and one year after NCLB became law, Ted Kennedy was not at all pleased with the bill's progress: "Unfortunately," he said, "the success of the bill is now greatly imperiled by the unwillingness of the president and the Republican leadership in Congress to provide the funding that we all promised in passing that law." House of Representatives Democrat Richard Gebhardt went even further in his rhetoric, when he recently called NCLB a "phony gimmick" and "a fraud" - attacking Bush's apparent reticence to fully back and fund the bill.
The Basics of the NCLB Legislation
Meantime, beyond the politics surrounding NCLB, it is worthwhile to examine some of the key provisions of the legislation, which has attempted to establish stricter guidelines for schools receiving federal funds. The bill created a series of assessments (tests) in each state that "measure what children know and learn in reading and math in grades 3-8," according to the NCLB Web site. Each child will be tested, each year, to measure progress. An annual "report card" will be available to parents regarding the progress of their children, the qualifications of their children's teachers, and schools; additionally, there will be statewide performance data available to parents, continually assessing schools and the learning that takes place. The bill "offer(s) most local school districts in America the freedom to transfer up to 50% of the federal dollars they receive among several education programs without separate approval." NCLB also offers school districts the "flexibility to consolidate all funds they receive from several programs," and that is "in exchange for entering into an agreement holding them accountable for higher academic performance."
More importantly, parents whose children are in schools under the category "failing" are allowed "to transfer their child to a better-performing public or charter school immediately." Those parents will be awarded from $500 to $1,000 (in federal dollars) to get tutoring or other forms of special help for their children. The bill also dramatically raises the standards bar for teachers, applying strict "accountability" yardsticks to all states, which must pass their own rules to enforce extremely high standards for teacher accountability. And schools that fall short of those targets will be punished, including being "restructured."
The bill - realistically or unrealistically - projects that all schools, districts and states will achieve "adequate yearly progress," and thus attempts to assure that 100% of all students will reach the "proficient level" in reading, math, and language arts by 2014.
Repercussions, Problems, Issues with NCLB
Is it possible, is it at all reasonable, to expect students to reach a level of 100% proficiency in U.S. schools? The president of the American Educational Research Association, Robert L. Linn, says that lofty goal "...is more wishful thinking than a realistic possibility" (Linn, 2003). He notes that with government-mandated high state standards in place, only 26.8% of 8th grade students in South Carolina achieved "proficiency" in English/Language Arts in 2002. In math, the South Carolina students reached just 19.1% proficiency. And in Missouri, where the standard "is even more stringent," writes Linn, "only 13.7% of 8th graders met or exceeded the math assessments in 2002. Doing the math, that means 86.3% of Missouri grade 8 students failed in math.
Indeed, a number of states have begun to "lower the passing grades on the standardized tests" that the new law mandates. In fact, four U.S. Senators are initiating a bill which would allow states to obtain a "waiver" to escape the strict requirements. After all: if stringent rules are not met with regard to student achievement in math and English/language arts, schools can lose federal aid, and/or be taken over for restructuring. Linn mentions several states which are initiating creative strategies for coping with the rules, including Ohio, which is raising its academic achievement bar in "increments every three years until 2010, and annual increments after that to reach 100% in 2014." Linn says it "would be wonderful" if the 100% goal could be reached, but, since it is not realistic, he fears the inevitable failure to reach the goal will "do more to demoralize educators than to inspire them."
There are other thorny issues regarding Bush's leadership in education, and with his administration's approach to implementing NCLB. For example, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Ted Kirsch, recently called NCLB "the biggest unfunded mandate ever" (Kirsch, 2003). The Leadership Conference on Civil rights issued an "I" grade for "incomplete," and urged the administration to "keep America's neediest children as a priority" (Gorman, 2003).
Further criticism regarding the dearth of funding for NCLB came last month from Hawaiian Rep. Roy Takumi, on the day that Brian Jones, a senior advisor to the secretary of education, visited Honolulu. Jones was in town to announce that "Hawaii is actually the 24th state in the country to have its accountability plan approved" (thehawaiichannel, 2003). But Takumi said the Department of Education "...estimates it will cost at least $100 million to fund just the basics of NCLB," and he added, "That's $100 million over and above what we are getting from the federal government."
Many educators, meantime, believe that a key stepping stone towards helping students improve their skills in math and English, to meet stiff NCLB guidelines, is to provide after school programs, particularly for those children who are at-risk, whose parents' work schedule means the house is empty when children arrive home, and also those children in high-crime neighborhoods. Many of these programs are bare-bones, consisting of part time paid staff to supervise playground activities, issue basketballs and soccer balls to kids, help them with homework, and generally give kids an opportunity to get off the mean streets. However, the Bush budget for fiscal year 2004 has slashed after-school program funding from $1 billion to $600 million. In fact, "more than three-quarters of requests for federal after-school grants went unfunded" (Cardman, 2003) in 2002. The number of children shut out of after school programs next year, according to Education Daily, is 561,000. Why does the Bush administration refuse to more fully fund after school programs? The administration alludes to research they say shows after school programs produce only slight gains academically, and that students staying on playgrounds don't feel entirely safe.
And while after school programs are gutted by Bush, other issues, such as school prayer, appear to be high on the list of importance. NCLB contains covenants that require every school district to certify in writing (Simpson, 2002) that its schools do not "prevent" or "deny" children's rights to pray, if they wish. And vouchers are also high on the Bush list of school priorities. In fact, the Bush budget for 2004 "dumps" programs like after school, dropout prevention, PE, rural education - some 45 programs all told worth $1.5 billion - in favor of giving vouchers to parents to take their kids to religiously-run schools. "...Voucher programs undermine rather than strengthen our public…