Out With The Old: Congress Prepares to Reauthorize the 2001 No Child Left Behind Law

Sep 1, 2009

At East Alton-Wood River High School, as well in schools across the state, the measurement of academic improvement is based on a single test given over two days once a year. “It’s silly to measure a school’s performance by that,” says Superintendent John Pearson
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama’s administration made a symbolic gesture that likely foreshadows changes coming to the controversial No Child Left Behind law: The red schoolhouse built over the entrance to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., by President George W. Bush’s administration was torn down. The No Child Left Behind name was removed from building signage and stationery. Word went out to call the law by its 1965 name: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA in fed-speak. The message many people are reading into the action is that the emphasis on just two of the 3 R’s, reading and arithmetic — writing was all but left out — will be replaced by a return to an expanded curriculum that offers more than “teaching to the test.”

An attempt to rewrite the 2001 federal law in 2007 failed in Congress. Now, as the Obama administration looks at what works and what doesn’t, educators and policy interest groups are weighing in on what changes Congress should make.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican and member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, says work on reauthorization is not scheduled, but the administration could push it in the fall. “It may come up as the next big project. We did cap-and-trade and health care. It seems all these big things are coming up awfully fast.” 

The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan, former chief of Chicago Public Schools, however, is not waiting. It has more than $10 billion from the 2009 budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to hand out in grants to states. In return, states will be expected to play by a new set of rules to reach high standards of achievement to prepare students for a global world of work.

States will compete for $4.35 billion this year and next through a program called Race to the Top, which urges states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards, expand charter schools, build data systems that measure student success and link teacher pay to student performance. 

In June, the Illinois General Assembly passed measures that meet two of the federal goals: charter schools and longitudinal data. Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 612, which doubles the number of charters available in the state to 120, and SB 1828, which allows the Illinois State Board of Education to collect longitudinal data that will follow students through their education, from pre-K into employment (see Illinois Issues, June, page 25).

In a news release announcing the Race to the Top fund at the end of July, the president said the competition will not be based on “politics, ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle — whether a state is ready to do what works.”

Symbolically, Quinn held the signing ceremony at Alain Locke Elementary Charter Academy in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. The Bush administration had recognized Locke Charter as “the most improved public school in the city.” Indeed, the report card for the year-round school of about 500 students shows that the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards rose from 14 in 2002 to 81 in 2008.

Those are telling numbers when compared with another elementary school in the south side neighborhood of Englewood that is representative of many of the 666 schools in District 299. The report card for Yale Elementary School shows only minimal growth during the same time frame: 22 percent of students met or exceeded standards as judged by the Illinois State Achievement Test, or ISAT, in 2002; scores dropped to 16 percent in 2005, then rose to 43 percent in 2008. The No Child Left Behind target was 62.5 percent proficient, and the state average was 79 percent. 

For most of the last decade, educators and politicians have been arguing whether the No Child Left Behind law works, whether it does or doesn’t leave any children behind. It forced school districts to pay close attention to low-achieving students. But it relies heavily on standardized tests that leave little room for classroom teachers to follow learning; instead, many say it forces them to teach only for the tests.

“No one disagrees with the goal of closing the achievement gaps,” says Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, which represents more than 125,000 teachers, educational support professionals, higher education staff and faculty, students and retired association members. 

However, he says the so-called annual yearly progress measurement of test scores that is a major part of the current law has had some “unintended consequences.”

“It’s caused a narrowing of the curriculum as there’s more focus on the test score, and we don’t think it’s good practice to base everything on a once-a-year high-stakes test.” Swanson says the tests, which cost the state $53.7 million last year, do not measure individual student progress and are a prime example of some of the fundamental flaws in the law. 

State Superintendent Christopher Koch, chief administrator of the Illinois State Board of Education, says the law has forced a “myopic focus” on academic disciplines such as math, language arts and science at the expense of other subjects. “So we see less of a focus on art, music, social studies, geography. Anything else important to the full development of a student, a human being, is not given the emphasis it should be.”

On the other hand, Koch says state boards of education, including Illinois’, now collect, report and reflect on data differently than they did before the No Child Left Behind law went into effect. “We think that’s led to a better focus on instructional issues for subgroups,” those students with disabilities, English language learners, ethnic groups and those from low-income families.

“For students with disabilities, for English language learners, we need to be able to look at growth — and the law’s permissive toward growth models now a little more than it was — but because all students still have to meet standards by 2014, it’s not very helpful because that’s not necessarily where everyone’s going to be.”

The consensus seems to be that though the intent of the law — to raise the achievement of all students to a high level — is applauded, the implementation is upside down. The federal government should be “tight on ends and loose on means,” as many critics of the law put it. The proper federal role, most agree, is to set the academic standards, administer the assessments and report the results — then leave it to states, districts, schools and educators to determine how best to attain those standards and on what timetable. 

“The way the law is written, it’s punitive toward districts even when they can show growth,” Koch says.

Michael Faraday Elementary School on the west side of Chicago fits that circumstance. According to its report card, the school doubled its Illinois State Achievement Test scores from 2002 to 2008. However, the school of 250 students, which is 98 percent African-American with 98 percent low-income, did not reach proficiency targets in any year. As a result, the school was required to submit a restructuring plan. 

Schools that don’t meet targets must take corrective action. Among the 870 school districts in the state during the 2007-2008 school year, 46 schools were in the planning stages of restructuring under the No Child Left Behind law, and 312 were in the implementation stage. Planning must begin in year four after a school has not been able to meet yearly progress benchmarks in reading and math. 

Nationwide, reading and math test score targets, requiring a 95 percent participation rate, were 40 percent in 2003 and 70 percent in 2009. The target is 85 percent in 2011, with the ultimate goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014. After meeting the achievement and participation rate requirements, elementary and middle schools also must attain a 90 percent attendance rate, and high schools must graduate at least 78 percent of their students.

A school and/or district not making yearly progress standards by year five must reopen as a charter school, replace the principal and staff, contract for a private management company to come up with a plan, let the state take over or design its own solution through an “other” option, defined as “any major restructuring of school governance.”

Charter schools, most of which are in Chicago, though three just opened in Rockford, are public schools run as nonprofit organizations. They receive about $7,000 per pupil per year for educational costs from the school district and the state. Each charter school is responsible for its operational costs, which run about $11,000 per pupil each year for most public schools in Chicago. Those costs vary some, but not much, downstate.

Carlos Perez, director of public policy for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says the state is “getting there,” but ideally there would be no cap on the number of charters allowed. “The thought behind charter schools is that it’s market driven.” He says parents who want their children to go to a high-performing school should have the option. “That opportunity should be available to any family that sees the need for that type of education.”

Illinois Network of Charter Schools reports more than 13,000 families are on waiting lists to get into charter schools.

The Obama administration plans to release the first round of education aid early next year and another round by September 2010. The money granted will go to the Illinois State Board of Education, with about half passed on to individual districts, says Matt Vanover, spokesman for the board.

The extra help can’t come soon enough for most administrators and teachers who have been challenged by the demands of No Child Left Behind.

East Alton-Wood River High School in Madison County is a relatively small school on the fringe of a big city. Each year, it spends $14,600 in combined educational and operational costs for each pupil. The student body is more than 96 percent white with 44 percent low-income. As a school that had to restructure, it adopted a program developed by High Schools That Work, a consortium of more than 1,200 high schools in 31 member states, including Illinois.

“It’s a comprehensive reform model that addresses everything,” says John Pearson, superintendent of the one-school district. The program delivers technical assistance, professional development, publications and assessment services to the schools. “It fits our needs, it fits our clientele, our environment. It’s very vocational- and career-focused. It’s very student-focused.”

Yet, Pearson says the measure of academic improvement is based on a single test given over two days once a year. “It’s silly to measure a school’s performance by that.” 

At the high school level, the state tests every junior every year, then compares that data with another group of juniors who take the test another year. Elementary students are tested every year in grades 3 through 8.

“Over the state, statistically that works out. You can start to see trends develop,” Pearson says. “But in a small high school like ours with about 700 kids, you get some classes that are better than other classes. The sample size is too small, so it’s apples and oranges. It doesn’t tell the whole story about what a school does.”

Or the challenges students have in trying to meet national goals. “There’s a lot of variables that impact the ability of kids to be successful in school,” says Earl Hernandez, principal of Rockford East High School in Winnebago County. “Part of the problem in education in the last 10 years is the inability for us as a system to adapt to the societal changes and the generations that have come since the days we were teaching in a different manner. I think today’s kids are different, and I don’t think we address that. We try to use methods we used 10 to 15 years ago. No Child Left Behind helped us look at that and change it.”

Rockford East has 1,600 students, of which 73 percent are low-income, with a mix of mainly African-American, white and Hispanic students. The school spends about $15,000 per pupil per year. It is one of four high schools in Rockford, all of which are in some phase of restructuring. Hernandez says the public will become more aware of the expectations of the law, if it is not changed, as schools approach the 100 percent proficiency target. 

“When the more urban districts like ours were impacted adversely by No Child Left Behind, at first there was not much noise, except: ‘You have to get better.’ Now we’re going to hear of the New Triers having problems and the Oak Brooks and the Hinsdales, and when that starts happening, there’ll be more noise made, and people will have to be a little more realistic of what the expectations are going to be.”

Indeed, Linda Yonke, superintendent of New Trier Township High School District 203 in Winnetka, agrees. “I don’t see how it will be possible that all students in all subgroups will achieve at 100 percent.” 

The school district, which has one dual-campus high school, saw 88 percent of its 4,100 students meet or exceed standards in 2008. It spends nearly $28,000 per pupil per year, with just 2 percent of students classified as low income. U.S. Reps. Biggert and Mark Kirk, as well as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are among its alumni. 

At the other end of the size spectrum is Community Unit School District 1 in Hutsonville in Crawford County. It spends less than $13,000 on each of its 400-plus pre-K through grade 12 students, 54 percent of which are low-income. Yet, its K-8 elementary is an Illinois Spotlight School, having met testing standards each year. In 2008, the state recognized nearly 500 Illinois Spotlight Schools, mostly elementaries, that had met those standards for at least two years. 

Hutsonville High School has missed its No Child Left Behind goals the last two years because math scores were below the target, says Roger Eddy, its superintendent who also is a Republican state representative. He says the district has not been able to hire a second math teacher.

“We have had exactly zero applicants, math-qualified applicants, in our small, rural area to hire that second math teacher,” says Eddy. “Even if you want to implement certain strategies, it’s difficult to do where there are not math teachers available, for example.”

He agrees that the stringent timeline for achievement should be changed in a rewrite of federal policy. He says there are just two categories of schools under No Child Left Behind: those that did not meet annual yearly progress standards and those that won’t at some point in the future.

“What was the true motivation [behind the passage of No Child Left Behind]: to put every school in status at some point so that vouchers and charters could be pushed? Was this more about choice than it was about improvement?”

Eddy thinks a growth model would lend itself to some creative improvement strategies, particularly in the area of special education.

“To expect students to have an individualized education plan because they have a special need, and then require them to take what amounts to the same assessment that students in the regular program take, I think is more punishment than any type of valid assessment program,” he says.

Rep. Biggert says the education committee will look at growth models in a rewrite. “That will really help kids. It’s much more about looking at their education as an individual.”

Pearson, too, likes the idea of measuring growth. One version being floated by the Obama administration, he says, would use a “value-added” assessment model, which would track individual students over time rather than take a snapshot test of different people. Rather than testing and comparing different students each year, Pearson says, “you could take Johnny or Susie when they start in ninth grade, then chart them through their senior year and see their academic progress.”

Koch and the State Board of Education have been working toward that approach. With the signing of SB 1828, the board will begin to collect longitudinal data that will follow students through their education, from pre-K beyond high school, through community college and four-year institutions, right into employment. It has not been funded by the state, but the board received a $9 million federal grant to help start the system, which will also support compilation of a history of courses taken by high school students.

“This is important,” Koch says, “because we want to get to that issue: Is algebra being taught in the small, rural district as it is being taught in the larger district? And how are they different? And what courses are students taking and how many courses are the students taking?”

The state superintendent, who is a member of a committee advising the U.S. Department of Education on possible changes to federal policy, says another concept that will likely be discussed is one called multiple measures, a broadening of testing assessments. He says educators and policymakers have to ask whether other measures should be considered that are important in the development of a person.

“We know that critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills are important, both for employers and for students’ success when they leave high school.”

For educators, the issue of how to judge a student’s — and by extension a school’s — academic achievement is followed closely by how to pay for it. 

“One of the real problems with No Child Left Behind is that they left the money behind,” says Eddy. “With state sources cutting funding and the federal government targeting Title I and special education using stimulus money, how do you implement these programs that are unfunded?”

Biggert uses the example of the special education IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) program, 40 percent of which the federal government was expected to fund. “We’re at about 17 to 18 percent now, and that’s what makes the school districts have a hard time managing what they have: the monies they get from the state and local levels.”

Schools that take advantage of the latest infusion of federal grants may find some relief. Several million dollars are aimed at specific areas, such as technology and effective-teacher incentives. 

Hernandez hopes to see some of the new funding reach his district. He says beyond program needs, his school has serious infrastructure and technology problems. The school has basic needs, such as new windows, just to give students a comfortable place to learn. “I have a 100-year-old building with classrooms we can’t get warmer than 55 degrees in January.”

Technology upgrades are also a necessity. The few computers his school has are still running Windows 95, which makes it difficult for students to be ready to compete in the marketplace after high school. Even small districts such as Eddy’s — which has well-maintained buildings with smartboards in every classroom and several new computer labs, as well as science labs “that are some of the best in the state” — can offer more to students. 

“When it comes to technology, the kids that come through my high school are nowhere near prepared to deal with a technological world,” Hernandez says. “We need to be able to get dollars to help get these schools up to speed ­— 21st century, not late 20th. That’s where we are.”

But the economic recession has hit states hard. The $26.1 billion state operating budget signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in early July cut about $442 million in discretionary spending from the Illinois State Board of Education budget for fiscal year 2010. Grant-funded education initiatives ranging from afterschool programs to gifted education were drastically cut or eliminated in the board’s $7.2 billion budget. At the end of July, Quinn restored $152 million to programs such as early childhood education, which had lost a third of its funding.

It would have been worse without about $2 billion from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, money that won’t be available next fiscal year. However, because that money went into the general fund to help fill a nearly $12 billion state budget hole, schools got only what each was already scheduled to receive under the state school aid distribution equation. Pearson says all the stimulus money means to schools is that administrators have to do more paperwork for the same money.

But until Congress reauthorizes a new version of education policy, administrators, teachers and students keep working toward meeting the prescribed achievement targets of No Child Left Behind.

Hernandez of Rockford joins the chorus in saying some of the law’s goals are unrealistic. “But when I look at it from what’s been done — for example, in my high school, and it may not sound great to others, but last year my juniors took the PSAE [Prairie State Achievement Examination], and 54 met or exceeded in all four areas. This year we had 108. I see that as going from here to the moon for us.”

 

Still Left Behind

On the final day of June 2009, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago published a report entitled “Still Left Behind,” which revealed a stark and disturbing reality regarding Chicago Public Schools.

The report’s key findings include:

• Nearly half of the students at nonselective-enrollment schools drop out before graduation. Additionally, more than 70 percent of remaining students at those schools fail to meet 11th-grade state standards for college preparedness. High performing students are all concentrated in magnet and selective-enrollment schools.

• The perception of improvement in the number of students meeting state standards on assessment tests reflects changes in testing made by the Illinois State Board of Education rather than improved student learning.

• To truly push improvement in the district, a more rigorous national test for student achievement must be used as the benchmark. An independent auditor must also be responsible for ensuring all reports regarding student achievement are accurate and distributed in a timely, comprehensible fashion.

• Improvement in education depends on providing quality alternatives, including expanding the number of charter and contract schools in Chicago. Those schools outperform traditional public schools and spur all Chicago public schools toward improvement.

The report’s full text can be viewed at: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/downloads/CPS.pdf.

 

Illinois Issues, September 2009