Efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind in the last session of Congress resulted in a stalemate. Neither the House nor the Senate could come up with the needed votes to pass a bill, and it was unclear whether or not President Bush really wanted legislation.
But is reauthorization becoming irrelevant?
NCLB’s opponents, on both the left and the right, seem to want to wait to see what happens in the November elections. But that means starting work in 2009. By the time legislation passes, takes effect, is funded, and regulations are promulgated, today’s high school freshmen will have graduated (or dropped out). A lot of people are betting (and working) against reauthorization this year.
Both the arguments for, and against, reauthorization center primarily around correcting, now or later ("after further study…" as they say), problems that NCLB has supposedly created. There are a few other good proactive ideas. But most, if not all, of these things can be done without any changes to the NCLB statute. Instead, they could be addressed in a matter of weeks rather than years either through regulation or separate, targeted legislation.
Here’s a rundown.
HIGHER STANDARDS, BETTER ASSESSMENTS
Fill-in-the bubble tests are the weakest link in the accountability system. However, what seems to be lost in the current debate is that the choice of standards and assessments is left entirely up to states. Take a look at what’s out there – anything goes. (In most cases, they’ve made bad decisions, despite having been given billions of dollars, starting with Goals 2000 in 1994, for this purpose. But, hey, that’s the downside of local control).
Congress might be able to act most effectively and efficiently as venture capitalists by initiating a standards and assessments improvement fund to boost content standards and create state-of-the-art assessment systems in a handful of vanguard states. Tests would have to assess student skills through multiple modalities, with heavy input from local teachers.
There is a lot of debate about whether or not NCLB has resulted in a narrowing of school curricula (or whether that is a good or bad thing, even if true).
But current law already provides for content standards in subjects other than math and reading. Furthermore, few seem to know this, but NCLB requires states to have assessments in science this school year. Perhaps the best course would be to give schools time to adjust to this new feature of NCLB’s accountability system, study it, and make further adjustments accordingly in two or three years. In the interim, states could be helped and encouraged with a small pot of money to create standards in the next subject that they want to phase in.
One weakness of many state accountability systems is that they compare different sets of students from year to year – e.g., this year’s third graders to last year’s third graders. A better model would be to compare the same set of students’ progress from year to year and give schools credit for students’ annual gains. But this is already allowed under current law. Nine states are already doing it. The Secretary of Education says she is going to approve even more.
The limiting factor is state data systems. For both technical and political reasons, most states don’t have the longitudinal data systems in place to use growth models. Some money that could be used for this purpose was put into the appropriations bill that passed in December. In the meantime, states that aren’t ready for growth models can more systematically use the little-known “safe harbor” provision of NCLB that allows schools to meet AYP for small increments in student achievement (i.e., a 10% reduction in the proportion of students who are not proficient).
Two years ago, the word on the street was that the rewrite of NCLB would emphasize the “S” in ESEA (The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 aka No Child Left Behind). Miller and McKeon put forth some good provisions on this score. They could be moved and funded on a separate track.
One key weakness in the current law, the lack of any uniform method to measure graduation rates, can be addressed through regulation, and Margaret Spellings has signaled that she will do so. This action by Spellings would have the added benefit of heading off any attempt to further enable states’ creative obfuscation of graduation rates through mealy-mouthed language that could (will) rise up in any NCLB reauthorization, e.g., Senator Hillary Clinton’s proposal that the feds “help and support” states to set a uniform rate, rather than require it. Click here: Dropout A Hot Issue In South Carolina? for more.
Critics of NCLB lament that schools and districts are forced to take a one-size-fits all approach to school improvement, corrective action, and restructuring when they do not meet AYP. Nothing could be further from the truth. For examples - one possible "restructuring" solution is to provide professional development; shouldn’t districts be doing that anyway with NCLB Title II funds? - see last week’s "Spoonful of Sugar").
Spellings plans to take action very soon to make the flexibility available even clearer than it is now.
House Education Committee Chairman George Miller has rightly criticized states for using specious arguments for circumventing the letter of the law in gray areas such as “statistical reliability”. It took the Associated Press, for example, to uncover the fact that many states fail to measure groups of students as large as about 100 on this basis (where were the statisticians?). Spellings hasn’t taken action on this. But she could.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
These actions and any others Congress wants to take - such as on teacher pay or education technology - would go a long way toward improving the law, without all the hoopla and drama associated with NCLB, and improving education for poor and minority children.
Legislation is easy to pass when it’s a priority. The House of Representatives passes dozens of bills on “suspension” (no recorded votes necessary) every month. Lots of education legislation, with money, was passed (with votes) and signed into law by President Bush in 2007 in the omnibus appropriations bill (Were you one of the members of Congress out meeting with your constituents working off your NCLB talking points, while millions of dollars went to schools in the home districts of more senior or influential members? Thanks for taking one for the team!)
A top aide to the House Republicans told me once, not entirely inaccurately, that what goes on in Congress in the public eye is largely theatre. NCLB is the stage on which Congress wants to act. But it really needn’t.