NCLB Under the Microscope
If there was a central question during the College's two-day symposium on the federal No Child Left Behind Act in November, it was whether the country should set its sights on more realistic (and potentially more meaningful) achievement targets than NCLB currently endorses, or whether the law's famous goal--of universal student proficiency in reading and math by 2014--is the most powerful way to ensure improved outcomes for poor, minority and disabled students.
The marathon session featured researchers presenting new data about NCLB and debating whether and how to fix the law, which was first enacted in 2002 and is now nearly halfway to its target date.
"Nothing is sacred, and we'll look at the Act in very profound and hard-hitting ways," predicted Michael Rebell, Exec- utive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, which convened the event.
Rebell's own verdict was that NCLB isn't living up to its name: "NCLB's aims are good ones, but aspects of the law appear to be undermining that vision."
Nine studies, presented by a slate of leading educational researchers, seemed to bear him out, detailing poor progress under NCLB on student achievement, teacher quality, accountability and federal oversight.
There was, however, near unanimous agreement that NCLB's targets should be retained. "With NCLB there now is pressure that special education students be taught grade-level subject matter," said Margaret McLaughlin, Professor and Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth at the University of Maryland. "In 42 of 44 states for which we have data, there is an upward trend in the percent of students with disabilities achieving proficiency. This improved performance, how-ever, is seen in the lower grades, but flattens out at upper grade levels."
Others focused on the 100 percent proficiency goal as NCLB's weakest link--either because they saw that goal as unattainable, or because state proficiency standards vary too widely, or both.
"Nothing can save NCLB unless we jettison the incoherent demand that all students be proficient by 2014," said Richard Rothstein, Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute. "Standards cannot be simulta-neously challenging and achievable for all students. Proficiency for all is an oxymoron."
Other presenters suggested that NCLB's failure to deliver on its top-line goals stems from breakdowns in efforts to achieve those considered lower priority. For example, NCLB promised that all students would be taught by highly qualified teachers (HQTs) by 2006, but to date no state has met that target. Furthermore, NCLB allows states too much latitude in defining an HQT.
"Improving teacher quality will require more than NCLB's HQT provision," said Susanna Loeb, Associate Professor at Stanford University School of Education. "Give local actors more flexibility in deciding who the good, effective teachers are. More local efforts are also needed to reduce the disparities in working conditions. Substantial structural changes are needed so that difficult- to-staff schools are more attractive to teachers."
Still others argued that NCLB's accountability mechanisms are not only failing to ensure compliance with the law, but are in fact actively sowing problems.
"NCLB has become the primary means of regulating education policy in the U.S. This is a power grab by the federal government from state and local governments," said Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "Rather than treating all schools the same and imposing sanctions, school improvement requires a lot of support and differential treatment."
Newark, New Jersey, Mayor and TC trustee Cory Booker's closing remarks created one of the few moments of unanimity at the conference.
"I believe we need clear standards for what we want to achieve, sophisticated ways to measure progress toward those standards and con-sequences for failure," Booker said. "I know the answers are out there, and I refuse to wait on tomorrow or next month. I want to press this now." The audience erupted in applause.