Set Up to Fail?: Sweeping Changes Are Proposed for No Child Left Behind

Jun 1, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama speak at a Virginia school about education updates.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

 “No one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures, even when they’re making real gains.”– U.S. Secretary of Education 
Arne Duncan

 Every student in America proficient in reading and math skills by 2014.

It’s a laudable goal, but educators, reformers and politicians alike say it has set the country’s schools up for failure and may be depriving children of a well- rounded education. 

As Illinois and other states watch more schools fail under the standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act than state boards of education can assist, President Barack Obama is calling for sweeping changes to the law, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), before most students return to school next fall.

“According to new estimates, under the system No Child Left Behind put in place, more than 80 percent of our schools may be labeled as failing — 80 percent of our schools! Four out of five schools will be labeled as failing. That’s an astonishing number. And our impulse is to either be outraged that the numbers are so high or skeptical that they’re even true. And let’s face it, skepticism is somewhat justified. We know that four out of five schools in this country aren’t failing. So what we’re doing to measure success and failure is out of line,” Obama said during a recent speech at a Virginia middle school.

In Illinois, 720 schools are on the State Board of Education’s academic watch list for schools failing to meet the standards required by the act. However, several of those same schools are on the board’s “honor roll” for high performance or for consistently improving student performance in recent years. This illustrates the primary complaint most have about the rigid standards set under former President George W. Bush: Schools that show substantial improvement are still dubbed as failing.

“No one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures, even when they’re making real gains,” says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

  In 2010, NCLB standards ramped up and required that 77.5 percent of students at a school meet or exceed expectations in reading and math skills measured by a standardized test, that high schools have a graduation rate of 80 percent and that elementary and middle schools have an attendance rate of 90 percent. Also in 2010, more than half of Illinois’ public schools — or almost 2,000 — failed to reach the targets, referred to as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), set out by the federal program. More than 550 school districts —more than 60 percent — failed to make AYP. The requirements are set to continue to increase until 2014, when the goal is 100 percent of students passing the test. 

“That’s never going to happen,” says U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican. Biggert, who serves on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, echoes the opinions of many who say that the goals built into the act are arbitrary and that scores from a test administered once a year cannot fully reflect how students are progressing. “That one test should not gauge how kids are increasing their performance.”

Schools and districts that do not meet AYP for two consecutive years face federal sanctions, including mandates to offer children additional education services provided by an outside contractor, to give parents the choice to place their children at another school, and to create and adhere to an improvement plan. Schools that continue to miss the mark face restructuring, which can include removal of some administrative staff and teachers. They also face potential state sanctions, including a takeover by the State Board of Education, if they land on the state’s academic watch list for more than three consecutive years. 

However, as more schools become eligible for such consequences, in practice, many of them never occur. While schools are required to offer “school choice” to parents after failing to make AYP for two consecutive years — and must continue to offer it until they make AYP two years in a row — options are limited by the availability of other schools in the area and whether they have room for more students. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 51,713 children were eligible to move out of their failing schools in the 2008-2009 school year, but only 633 students actually swapped schools. “In certain areas, there just aren’t good choices, and that is the travesty. … Just saying that a child can transfer doesn’t mean that a child can,” says Jonah Edelman, chief executive officer of the national education reform group Stand For Children. The organization’s Illinois affiliate spearheaded the recent push for education reform in the state. The statistics for schools that use outside education services were better, but still, fewer than a quarter of students eligible for the services received them. 

  An April audit of the Illinois State Board of Education found that the board is leaving schools to languish on the academic watch list without providing the intervention required by law. At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, 411 schools had been on the list for four to eight years. By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the number had grown to 471 schools and 42 school districts. The report said board officials told auditors that they had not intervened because they lacked resources. “Not taking appropriate action against schools placed on the academic watch list may result in the continued underperformance of those Illinois schools and is in noncompliance with state law,” the audit states. 

While state law requires the Illinois Board of Education to step in and assist underperforming schools, the board uses federal standards to determine which make the watch list. “Any kind of state takeover or intervention is expensive, and we don’t have the staff and funding to do all of these, especially given the fact that as NCLB is currently written, all Illinois schools will eventually be in this status. We are taking on major interventions in North Chicago and East St. Louis,” board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said in a written statement. The board has voiced interest in changing the law so it can target a smaller number of schools and focus on those with chronic problems. 

Obama is also pushing for a more targeted approach. “We need a better way of figuring out which schools are deeply in trouble, which schools aren’t, and how we get not only the schools that are in really bad shape on track, how do we help provide the tools to schools that want to get even better to get better,” he said. 

He and many others working on the issue want to change the law so that schools are graded by individual student improvement. Instead of trying to make all kids reach a certain test score, each individual student’s progress over time would be tracked. If kids improved enough from year to year, schools would then be viewed as successful. “What’s been accepted is that what we need to do is focus on the child,” Biggert says. 

Obama’s plan still includes consequences for schools that have not made progress, which Duncan says number about 5,000 across the country. A school in this category would be required to pick from four restructuring models that include measures such as removing the school principal and some staff, reopening as a charter school or closing altogether. 

The president’s proposal would no longer require schools to offer supplemental education services or school choice. Obama does want to create more options for parents by encouraging the growth of sometimes-controversial magnet and charter alternative schools.

Sandy Kress, who helped create NCLB under the Bush administration, agrees it needs some reworking. But he says Obama wants to remove the teeth of the law that force schools to reach underperforming students. “Today, if schools shortchange students, especially subgroups of disadvantaged students, improvement in the operation of the school is required. Student problems can no longer be swept under the rug,” Kress wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Daily News. “Under the framework being proposed for the reform of the law, the administration would require that unless a school is among the very worst in the nation, it would no longer be required to improve, even if it continues to fail its black, Hispanic and other disadvantaged kids.”

Republican state Rep. Roger Eddy, superintendent of Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1, says while it is important to have high expectations for all students, children come into schools with varying home circumstances, backgrounds and capacities to learn. Eddy says the job of educators is to help each student realize his or her full potential, and the best way to measure that is by tracking student growth. Both he and Edelman agree that one positive effect of NCLB was that it drew attention to the need to close the racial and economic achievement gaps in the public education system by tracking the performance of several demographic subgroups. Edelman says he hopes to see that continue under a rewrite of the law. He adds that the collection of those statistics keeps schools from being able to “mask underperformance of children of color or children with disabilities.” 

Eddy says it does not make sense to administer the same tests given in standard classrooms to special education students who have been diverted to a separate curriculum track that meets their needs. “They have an individualized education plan that’s different from all the other kids in third grade — let’s say — because that’s why they’re in special education. They’re taken out of the classroom. In many cases, those kids are given the same test as their third-grade peers,” Eddy says. “Then what we’re doing is that we’re teaching them based on an [individual education plan] and testing them on the very curriculum we took them out of because modifications were necessary.”

NCLB’s critics say its emphasis on math and reading sometimes results in other subjects receiving less attention in the classroom because teachers try to ensure that their students pass the test. They say that often leaves graduating seniors unprepared for college and the workforce. Eddy says many schools recognize this and are to some degree ignoring the NCLB standards. “I think schools, by and large, have reached a point that they’re doing maybe not what’s best to meet the goals of NCLB, but [what’s best] for their kids now,” he says.

Eddy holds up the example of the high school in his district that has failed to make AYP in math. He says instead of pushing kids into remedial math classes to make sure they passed the test, the school began offering welding classes to prepare interested students for a trade. “Kids that I’m pretty certain would have dropped out of school — they wouldn’t have probably passed the math portion of the test — they’re in school,” he says. “At 17, those kids would have said: ‘No we’re not going to go into that remedial math class. We’re going to just [drop out.]’”

Educators and lawmakers have been raising red flags for years about the goals of NCLB that they see as unrealistic, but a meaningful rewrite of the law has yet to materialize. In 2009, members of Congress considered some of the changes on the table today, in particular switching to a student-growth-based model of evaluation. (For more information on these efforts see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 15.) Biggert says negotiations between stakeholders fell apart that time around. She says since then, some of the obstacles to negotiations have been removed, and she is optimistic that many of the problems with the law will be addressed. “We’re working on the reauthorization [of ESEA] now. We are having hearings.” 

Biggert does not agree with all the pieces of Obama’s proposal. She says the four restructuring options for the lowest performing schools are too prescriptive, and she would like to see more flexibility for solving problems at the local and state level. “All of them — really, I think — restrict innovation and create a lot more red tape.” Biggert says one of the flaws of NCLB is that it created such federal mandates on local districts. “We don’t want to be the national school board, and nobody wants us to.” However, she is hopeful that a compromise can be worked out and says many in Congress share the president’s goal of a rewrite by next fall. “I think that we’d like to, too. We’ve waited now a couple years for the reauthorization. We’ve lost a lot of creativity and innovation in the schools that way.”

Illinois Issues, June 2011