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Only the Bathwater -- Or the Baby, Too?

If there was a central question at issue during the College's recent two-day symposium on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it was if the country should set its sights on more realistic achievement targets than NCLB presently endorses.

A range of views on just what about NCLB needs fixing

If there was a central question at issue during the College's recent two-day symposium on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it was whether the country should set its sights on more realistic (and potentially more meaningful) achievement targets than NCLB presently endorses, or whether the law's current 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.

TC Professor Amy Stuart Wells provided historical context for that question in the Symposium's opening presentation, in which she noted that unlike many other developed nations, the U.S. has traditionally focused on educational achievement as a primary means to better the lot of the economically disadvantaged. Where other nations have established broad social welfare systems, Wells said, the U.S. has historically "laid the task of rectifying societal inequalities at the schoolhouse door."

"We've lagged behind other nations in having a social safety net," Wells said, pointing out that -- with the temporary exception of the New Deal -- policy and programs to support the elderly were slower to emerge here than in Europe, and that national health insurance "simply never happened at all.

The result, Wells said, is that during the past half-century, the U.S. has emphasized meritocracy rather than egalitarian values; focused on equality of opportunity rather than equality of results; stressed excellence rather than equity in education; and increasingly, in its policies to bolster student achievement, wielded the stick rather than proffering the carrot. Throughout, education has been the primary expression of this emphasis, beginning with President Lyndon Johnson's declaration that "we are going to eliminate poverty with education-' This is not going to be a handout. People are going to learn their way out of poverty."

Yet the gap in income between the nation's richest and poorest families has grown during the past 30 years, and the country has absorbed an enormous influx of immigrants, Wells said, increasing the challenge facing schools.

"Can we really achieve equality of opportunity when the levels of being are so unequal before children have even reached the schoolhouse door?" she asked. "We need to think about the types of supplementary policies needed outside of schools."

TC Emeritus Professor Edmund W. Gordon, who spoke as a discussant following Wells' presentation, echoed many of her main points.

"In a society where resources and opportunities are unevenly distributed meritocracy becomes a means of maintaining the status quo," he said, adding "I'm convinced that the achievement gap in our schools reflects the fact that our society is now in the advanced stages of capitalism -- a capitalism that says it is my right to exploit you. We don't talk about that one much because it's unpopular."

There were few challenges to these arguments by other speakers -- yet there was near unanimous agreement that NCLB's targets should be retained. In answer to moderator John Merrow, Executive Producer and Host of Learning Matters, who asked "is NCLB a positive benefit for poor children?" speakers on one panel all agreed that the law's focus on holding all students to high standards makes NCLB invaluable. 

"NCLB is a progressive policy. After two decades of education reform, this is the first explicit statement of closing the achievement gap," said Michael Nettles, the Edmund W. Gordon Chair for Policy Evaluation and Research at the Educational Testing Service.  Nettles was speaking of the performance gap between black and white students, but other speakers said NCLB's goals are providing similar benefits -- albeit with some limitations -- to special education students and English Language Learners (ELLs).

"NCLB sheds a bright light on the problem of the achievement gap," said Eugene Garcia, Vice President for Education Partnerships, Arizona State University, but added that ELLs should be assessed differently than they are under the current law.  "NCLB gets it wrong -- outcomes should be about education not simply about learning English," said Garcia, who proposed a growth model that measures the progress of ELLs over a three-to-four-year period.

"With NCLB there now is pressure that special education students be taught grade level subject matter.  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 however is seen in the lower grades but flattens out at upper grade levels," said Margaret McLaughlin, Professor and Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, University of Maryland.

Others described 100 proficiency goal as NCLB's weakest link -- either because they saw that goal as unattainable, or because proficiency standards vary too widely across states, or both.

"We need to revive the discussion of national education standards," said Robert Schwartz, Academic Dean and Professor of Practice, Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The need for this is even stronger now than it was before NCLB.  One way to address the problem of national standards is to encourage national organizations, not the federal government, to come forward with proposed sets of voluntary model national standards."

And Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, stated emphatically: "I believe we should have national standards and tests."

"One hundred percent proficient becomes increasingly unrealistic as we get closer to 2014," said Robert Linn, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder.  "NCLB's accountability system undermines its strengths.  We are likely to see all schools failing to meet AYP by 2014." 

Richard Rothstein, Research Associate, Economic Policy Institute, said he believes that "nothing can save NCLB unless we jettison the incoherent demand that all students be proficient by 2014." Rothstein focused on what he sees as a fundamental tautology in the law: "Standards cannot be simultaneously challenging and achievable for all students. Proficiency for all is an oxymoron." Rothstein added that NCLB is "not simply trying to do something good and failing -- it is doing enormous damage."

Many Rivera, Superintendent for the Rochester, New York School District, concurred, telling the audience of schools in his district that have made great progress and even won awards for their performance yet, under NCLB's accountability system, are considered "in need of improvement."

"NCLB's accountability system undermines true educational reform and is a very demoralizing system for those of us working in the schools," said Rivera.

Other presenters at the Symposium suggested that NCLB's failure to deliver on its top-line goals stems from breakdowns in achieving smaller milestone goals. For example, NCLB promised that all students would be taught by highly qualified teachers (HQTs) by 2006 but to date no state has met the HQT target.  The purpose of this provision is to ensure high quality teaching in all classrooms.  Furthermore, NCLB gives so much latitude to the states in defining what constitutes a HQT that there is wide variation in what gets defined as HQT from state to state.  "The federal government can help to increase the percentage of HQTs and reduce disparities but the HQT provision in NCLB is a weak provision for controlling quality," said Susanna Loeb, Associate Professor, Stanford University School of Education.

Loeb however cautioned the audience that there is little evidence the specific components of HQT requirements are important for student learning.  The effect of teacher certification -- one of NCLB's primary measures of HQT -- on teacher effectiveness is inconclusive.  Similarly, there is little evidence that coursework requirements for teachers effect student learning. 

"Improving teacher quality will require more than NCLB's HQT provision.  Give local actors more flexibility in deciding who the good, effective teachers are," said Loeb.  "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," she continued.

In order to achieve the HQT equity goal, "we must make sure that hard-to-staff schools are more desirable places to work, said Karen Zumwalt, Evenden Professor at TC, echoing the point made earlier by Loeb.  Barnett Barry, Founder and President, Center for Teaching Quality, called for a government funded "Marshall Plan" for training and producing teachers: "more than anything else, our nation needs an aggressive national teacher quality and supply policy."

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 US.  This is a power grab by the federal government from state and local governments," said Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
According to Elmore, this federal pre-emption has led to a one-size-fits-all accountability system that actually impedes student performance and school improvement.  "Rather than treating all schools the same and imposing sanctions, school improvement requires a lot of support and differential treatment," said Elmore.

But Tom Loveless, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution, defended NCLB's accountability system and argued that the scientific literature on accountability clearly shows that improved student performance is linked to states with accountability systems.

 "NCLB must be fairly funded," Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, said. "The federal government is not looking at the cost of the increased demands on schools that are the result of NCLB." He called for a national "costing-out" study, much like those that have been conducted by states in school finance lawsuits, to determine precisely what resources would be required to achieve NCLB's goals.

Coming full circle to the earlier arguments made by Wells and Gordon, Rebell also argued that schools cannot, by themselves, enable the most disadvantaged students to achieve at the same pace as their wealthier peers. "If NCLB's 100 percent proficiency is a mandate, then schools will have to work in concert with other institutional actors," he said. "There are basic services that all children need to excel in school -- e.g., quality health care, decent housing, good nutrition -- that are beyond the reach of schools."

The presenters did not reach any ultimate agreement about if and how NCLB should be revised. In fact, if there was a moment of unanimity at the Symposium, it came in response to closing remarks by Newark Mayor Cory Booker. 

"I believe we need clear standards for what we want to achieve, sophisticated ways to measure progress toward those standards, and consequences for failure," said Booker, elected this past spring. "I know the answers are out there, and I refuse to wait on tomorrow or next month. I want to press this now."

For perhaps the only time during the entire two days, the audience erupted in applause.

Published Friday, Jan. 5, 2007


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