Do We Need to Repair the Monument?

Education Next Issue Cover

Debating the future of No Child Left Behind



By Robert Linn, Kati Haycock, Ross Wiener and

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Spring 2005 / Vol. 4, No. 2


With the re-election of George W. Bush and the appointment of Margaret Spellings as his new secretary of education, many are wondering whether now is the time to revisit No Child Left Behind. The historic law, passed by Congress with broad, bipartisan support and signed by the President in January of 2002, introduced significant new systems of accountability into American education. While the law continues to have broad backing, school boards, administrators, and analysts from across the political spectrum have raised questions about many of its provisions.

“We’ve made great progress in our schools,” said President Bush, as he nominated Spellings last November 17. But even the president, the law’s strongest supporter, said at the time, “There is more work to do.”

Education Next invited four leading analysts to share their opinions about what has been learned in the three years since NCLB was enacted. John Chubb, a member of the Koret Task Force and our editorial board, calls for changes in the definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress. Robert Linn, a professor of education and former editor of the Journal of Educational Measurement, believes that the law sets “unrealistically high” standards. And Kati Haycock and Ross Wiener of the Education Trust caution against too much legislative tinkering, preferring administrative action instead. “Right now,” they argue, “energy should be focused on making NCLB work better.”

We began by asking them to state, in general,

Q: Is this law fundamentally good for America?

John Chubb (JC): Yes. With the enactment of NCLB, the United States may have taken a historic stride toward improving American education. NCLB is not like any federal education law before it. It sets ambitious goals for what all students in America will learn and authorizes radical measures to achieve them.

Robert Linn (RL): The law has much that is worthy of praise, particularly its emphasis on all children and the special attention it gives to improving learning for children who have been too often ignored or left behind in the past. The emphasis on closing the achievement gap is certainly praiseworthy. Other positives include the encouragement given to states to adopt ambitious subject-matter standards and to enhance teacher quality.

Kati Haycock and Ross Wiener (H/W): The bipartisan coalition that passed NCLB demanded that states pick up the pace of reform-that they take their own standards more seriously, provide more honest information to the public on progress, and tackle the deeply inequitable provision of education within their borders. These demands were absolutely necessary and long overdue, and they should be allowed a fair chance to work before being significantly modified.

Q: How does NCLB differ from its predecessors?

JC: NCLB is based on principles that are fundamentally different from those that have historically driven public education. First, there’s accountability. Schools are required to ensure that all of their students achieve proficiency in reading and math according to a set schedule. If they don’t, they face sanctions. The important difference is that schools are accountable not for delivering education to students, the historical norm, but for actually educating them-and to high academic standards.

Second, transparency. NCLB requires states to make public the scores of every public school on annual assessments for all students and for major economic, racial, ethnic, language, and special education subgroups. The law provides a window into school performance that parents, citizens, policy-makers, and the media have never had.

And third, choice. Students whose schools need improvement under NCLB are given the opportunity to transfer to better public schools and to receive tutoring from outside the school system. Disadvantaged students are given a power that middle- and upper-income students have always had: to choose a better school in a different neighborhood (by moving) or to hire a private tutor. NCLB thereby injects an element of the free market into an education system that has been organized strictly on the basis of direct government provision.

H/W: You have to consider how much had changed between passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Congress’s consideration of NCLB in 2000. On the one hand, education had become vastly more important to our economic prosperity and good citizenship; on the other hand, academically, the United States had fallen behind many of our international competitors.

Additionally, you have to remember that Congress had already asked the states to step up the pace on these issues. The 1994 reauthorization of ESEA represented a paradigm shift: No longer would the government ask states and districts to account specifically for how each federal dollar was spent; instead, it would ask for demonstrable results for students of color and students living in poverty.
Far too often, though, states fell significantly short in developing the necessary assessment, accountability, and public reporting systems. Most school systems continued to perform at a level that was “good enough” on overall averages, allowing schools to hide the underperformance of some groups beneath school averages. Indeed, by the time Congress readied itself to reauthorize the law in 2000, the average reading and math skills of the nation’s African-American and Latino high school seniors were identical to those of white 8th graders. So Congress acted on this information and demanded that states and school districts assert ownership over their low-performing schools and take responsibility for helping them to improve.

RL: I agree. The biggest difference between NCLB and earlier versions of the law is the specificity and stringency of the accountability system that states are required to put in place. All students in grades 3 through 8, and in high school, must be tested each year in reading and mathematics; intermediate achievement goals must be established. The student body as a whole, and each of several subgroups, must meet the annual achievement targets. Failure to do so invokes sanctions that become increasingly severe with continued failure to meet the targets.

Q: Is it working?

JC: The evidence that accountability works is already strong. As can be seen in Figure 1, states that adopted accountability systems during the 1990s made significantly greater gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than states that did not adopt such systems.

During the first full year of NCLB’s implementation, 2002-03, the largest school systems in the United States-and prime targets for NCLB-nearly doubled their average rate of improvement in reading and math combined. The Council of Great City Schools, which represents large urban school systems, reports major test-score improvements and attributes them to NCLB.

H/W: This country needed to ratchet up the focus on inequality in public education, and in that important respect the law is already working: NCLB has brought increased attention to achievement gaps and has ushered in accountability systems that make closing these gaps a top priority.

Accountability systems, of course, don’t teach students-educators do. But results from state assessment systems in the first two years of implementation provide heartening evidence that more and more schools are stepping up to the challenges created by this new form of accountability. Our recent analysis of elementary achievement data from every state with comparable publicly reported data for the past three years documents that almost every state is getting more students up to and above the state’s standards and that a sizable majority are narrowing gaps between groups.

RL: The NCLB focus on students with low achievement seems to have had some short-term positive effects. The percentage of schools meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets increased in 2003-04 from the year before in most states where the results have been reported (as of early September 2004).

In many instances, however, the gains in the number of schools making the AYP is attributable to changes that some states were allowed to make in reporting criteria, such as increasing the minimum number of students in a subgroup for separate reporting or using statistical techniques that give the school the benefit of the doubt when student performance is close to the annual achievement target.

H/W: Nevertheless, it is particularly encouraging that some of the most impressive gap closing is occurring in states-like Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Florida-that already had established standards-based accountability systems. These results suggest that NCLB’s focus on historically underserved groups is paying dividends. To be sure, it is far too early to reach definitive conclusions about NCLB: at least several more years of state data, together with 2005 NAEP results, will be necessary. And clearly the pace of change in most states is not yet sufficient. But surely these results are too promising to abandon this approach now.

Q: Is NCLB too rigid? Does it subvert state accountability systems?

RL: Several problems need to be addressed. The most serious is that the expectations for student achievement have been set unrealistically high, and as a consequence, almost all schools will fall short of the AYP targets within the next few years unless major changes are made in the definition of AYP. Performance goals mandated by the accountability system should be ambitious, but they also should be realistically obtainable with sufficient effort.

H/W: NCLB improves upon most state accountability plans, which relied on growth targets that set lower goals for lower-performing schools. This practice institutionalized achievement gaps. If we learned anything during the 1990s, it was that public education will not take responsibility for educating all students to state standards until schools operate under an accountability system that expects this outcome.

RL: At the very least, there needs to be existence of proof. That is, there should be evidence that the goal does not exceed what has previously been achieved by the students in the highest-performing schools. For example, if the best-performing 10 percent of schools had rates of improvement averaging 3 percent a year for the previous five years for students at proficient or above, then AYP for that state’s schools might be defined as a 3 percent increase in students who are proficient or above each year. That would be a great challenge to the vast majority of schools, but might be a target that is within reach with sufficient effort.

JC: It is important to keep in mind that NCLB, contrary to popular argument, has provided a very fair and flexible definition of what constitutes 100 percent proficiency. The law provides ample allowance for students in exceptional circumstances-for example, students with serious special education needs or non-English-speaking students newly arrived in the country-to satisfy alternative standards or to proceed at a slower pace and not be part of the calculation of full proficiency.

The key impediment to achieving the bold objectives of NCLB is the law’s reluctance to interfere with traditional state and local powers and prerogatives. The balance between state and nation needs to be altered, but every level of government retains a crucial responsibility in achieving universal proficiency for every young American.

H/W: A focus on incremental growth had labeled schools as successful even when very few students could read or do math on grade level. States said everything was fine, while underserved students were missing out on a quality education. So finally, Congress demanded accountability systems that level with the public. To be a good school now, under NCLB, a school has to be good for all groups of students it serves. That’s a positive development.

Q: Is it or isn’t it an unfunded mandate?

JC: Not at all. Since 2001 federal support for elementary and secondary education has increased nearly two-thirds, the largest increase in history. With NCLB, the federal government has dramatically increased its financial support for public schools while asking those schools to be accountable for what they have always said is their mission-to ensure every child a decent education.
Although it is often asserted that NCLB is underfunded, that’s a red herring. The direct costs of implementing NCLB’s requirements are more than covered by the substantial funding increases that followed its enactment. This plain fact was well documented by a Government Accounting Office study in May 2004. The indirect costs of NCLB are highly debatable, for they are nothing more or less than the costs of public education that states and districts are otherwise expected to provide.

H/W: Both politically and substantively, we would be better off if the federal government increased NCLB funding (especially if bigger investments were targeted to improving assessments). But this doesn’t make NCLB an unfunded mandate. NCLB requires states to set goals, measure progress, publicly report the results, and develop plans for improvement. Whether or not states make any progress meeting the goals, they will continue to receive their federal funding.

Most of the costs that are ascribed to NCLB, such as attracting and retaining more qualified teachers and improving low-performing schools, aren’t costs of complying with the law. It’s useful to reverse the analysis and ask whether, in the absence of NCLB, states would have less responsibility to educate all students up to state standards. Some will argue that states would have fewer tests or less public reporting, or they would offer less school choice or fewer supplemental services. Yet these are the costs most directly borne by NCLB.

Q: Is the AYP provision too onerous?

JC: Only two years into the law’s implementation, it is clear that NCLB is breaking education china-if not a new education path. More than one in every ten public schools is facing sanctions for failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for at least two years’ running. Nearly a third are at risk of sanctions, having failed to make AYP once.

Certainly, the major goal of NCLB is audacious: to have all public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014. But that goal is morally right and-again, contrary to popular argument-attainable. The median state has set proficiency standards about midway between the NAEP’s basic and proficient levels, a standard that half of all U.S. students already meet. It is not unreasonable to ask America’s schools to help the other half of today’s youth to meet these expectations within a decade.

H/W: The animating principle behind NCLB’s accountability system is that public education can teach, and has a responsibility to teach, almost every student how to read and do math up to a respectable level defined by the state. There is abundant evidence from schools all over the country that this is possible. The AYP system has been tweaked to be more sensitive to some of the challenges facing public schools, for instance, in the way students with disabilities and English-language learners are accounted for and in the method for calculating participation rates.

RL: Although the use of state-level NAEP results is not specified in the law, it is reasonable to think of those results as providing some kind of benchmark for state assessments. In 2003 no state or large district had anything close to 100 percent of its students performing at the basic level, much less the proficient level at either grade 4 or grade 8 in either reading or mathematics. (See Figure 2.)
Furthermore, the law requires an unrealistically rapid rate of improvement. This becomes apparent when the required changes are compared with a variety of different types of evidence, including historical data on change in student performance on state testing programs or on the NAEP. In mathematics, for example, the percentage of students at the proficient level or above on the NAEP would have to have an annual rate of improvement between 2003 and 2014 that is almost four times as fast at grade 4 and over seven times as fast at grade 8 as the rate actually realized between 1996 and 2003. Such rapid acceleration of achievement trends is unrealistic.

In reading, the rate of increase in the percentage of students who are proficient or above is an even more unrealistic jump. At grade 4, 31 percent of the students scored at the proficient level or above on the 2003 reading assessment compared with 29 percent in 1998. At grade 8, the percentage proficient or above on the reading assessments was 32 in both 1998 and 2003. These essentially flat trend lines in the percentage of students who are proficient or above in reading at both grades 4 and 8 would have to suddenly accelerate and maintain that previously unseen rate of improvement for the next decade.

H/W: Predictions that many or most schools will fail to meet their AYP goals in the coming years are flawed because they are projections based on past practice, which NCLB emphatically is intended to change. Unfortunately, we have never provided the conditions that would allow us to answer conclusively whether all students can be taught to high standards.

This much we know from current conditions: we cannot educate all students up to high standards by giving the least resources to the most vulnerable students.

RL: In 2003, 21.3 percent of Missouri’s grade 8 students scored at the proficient level or above on the Missouri mathematics assessment. The corresponding figure on the grade 8 NAEP mathematics assessment was 28 percent. The Missouri three-year trend of percentage proficient or above on its own grade 8 mathematics assessment is relatively flat (21.1 percent in 2002, 21.3 percent in 2003, and 22.9 percent in 2004), yet somehow that percentage is supposed to reach 100 by 2014.

California provides an example of a state where the proficiency standards are somewhat more lenient than the NAEP standards. Thirty-one percent of California’s grade 8 students scored at the proficient level or above on the California English-Language Arts Standards Test in 2003, whereas only 22 percent of California’s grade 8 students were at the proficient level or above on the 2003 NAEP reading assessment. The percentages of grade 8 students scoring at or above proficient on the California English-language arts test in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 were 32, 32, 31, and 33, respectively. That trend does not augur well for reaching 100 percent by 2014.

Q: Is it a good idea to let states set their own standards? Won’t these decline as states strive to ease their failure rates?

RL: NCLB requires states to set “challenging student academic achievement standards.” The problem is that states set the standards, and they have done so in ways that vary greatly in stringency. Some states have set lenient standards, so that 80 percent or more of their students perform at the proficient level or above, while other states have set such stringent standards that less than a quarter of their students perform at that level.

JC: States have used the discretion provided them by NCLB to set achievement proficiency standards that vary widely in difficulty (and worthiness), that in some cases have begun to decline, and, yes, that are likely to foster a “race to the bottom,” driving academic standards further downward as 2014 approaches rather than establishing and sustaining the high standards intended by the law.
More disturbing, some states have lowered their definitions of proficiency in response to NCLB. It is very likely, without changes in NCLB, that more states will weaken their standards to meet rising performance expectations.

H/W: States that have lowered their standards in response to NCLB constitute a small minority. Most states recognize that if they lower their standards, then they lower their expectations of how much students will learn.

The ramifications of continuing to undereducate our citizenry provide pressure to maintain and even raise our standards. Still, there is a danger that states will lower standards rather than step up to their responsibilities to help more schools and students to meet them. Mandatory participation in NAEP helps some by providing an external benchmark (albeit an imperfect one) for comparing the rigor of state standards. But policymakers at all levels should explore additional ways to ensure that standards for student learning are adequate to meet the needs of society.

JC: Some states have used the discretion provided by NCLB to set intermediate proficiency targets (what the law calls Annual Measurable Objectives, or AMOs) that spare most schools from any improvement efforts for several years. This practice only delays the need for major achievement gains by all schools. If this prospective train wreck is allowed to happen, the nation will have little alternative but to ignore NCLB or indefinitely delay its implementation.

RL: The differences in stringency have essentially no relationship to differences in the performance of students in the various states on NAEP. (See Figure 2.)

Consider, for example, the grade 8 mathematics results for Colorado and Missouri. NAEP scores show that Colorado students performed slightly better than those in Missouri in 2003 (66 percent below proficiency for Colorado compared with 72 percent for Missouri). On their own assessments, however, the percentage below proficiency in 2003 was 33 percent in Colorado compared with 86 percent in Missouri. The difference between the states’ scores clearly has more to do with the higher NCLB standards in Missouri than with a real difference in students’ achievement in the two states.

A consequence of this huge variability in stringency of state standards is that, in the context of NCLB, the word proficient has become meaningless.

JC: To encourage states to set their academic standards high and avoid a race to the bottom, all state proficiency standards should be calibrated using NAEP as a common yardstick. Specifically, NAEP should be used to rank all state proficiency standards against NAEP’s rigorous proficiency standard, and these rankings should be made public.

In addition, states that have set their standards above the median of all states should be given extra time (proportional to the amount by which their standards exceed the median) beyond 2014 to meet those standards for 100 percent of their students. Following this recommendation, states below the median would be encouraged to lift their standards by the public exposure of their low standards and states above the median would be encouraged, by extra time, to keep their standards high.

Q: Were NCLB’s architects right to focus on “levels” of achievement rather than on student gains?

H/W: If students are far behind grade level, they need an accountability system that asks adults to accelerate those students’ learning. Those students need to catch up, not just move a little from where they were before. Replacing AYP with an accountability system based exclusively on growth means that some schools won’t ever be expected to teach all of their students the fundamental skills of reading and math.

Moreover, NCLB does credit schools for making real progress. The law’s “safe harbor” provision allows schools to make AYP even if they have not met the statewide goals for that year, as long as the school reduces the percent not proficient by 10 percent from the previous year. For example, a school makes AYP if it goes from 60 percent below the proficiency standard to just 54 percent below the standard, a mere 6 percent. Since 6 percent divided by 60 percent is 10 percent, it meets the “safe harbor” requirement, a level of progress that is significant and attainable without being too ambitious. It is also important to recognize that some states, including Massachusetts and New York, use an index system for calculating AYP determinations. In addition to focusing on students at or above proficiency, these index systems give schools credit for bringing students up from below basic to the basic level of achievement.

RL: If the percentage of students who are above a “cut score” on a state assessment is to be used, the cut score should be more meaningful than the state-established proficient levels, which lack any semblance of a common meaning across states.

There are several approaches that would be preferable to reporting results in terms of percent proficient or above. One simple approach would be to define the standard, or cut score, on a state assessment as equal to the median score in a base year, presumably 2002. The percentage of students scoring above that constant cut score would then be used to monitor improvement in achievement, with target increases set at reasonable levels, for example, 3 percent a year. With a target increase of 3 percent a year, the proportion of students scoring above the 2002 median would need to increase from 50 percent in 2002 to 86 percent in 2014. That would represent a gigantic improvement in the achievement of the nation’s students, but might not be totally unrealistic. And it surely is not as poorly defined as 100 percent proficient or above, given the huge state-to-state variability in the meaning of proficient.

JC: A modest policy adjustment that takes advantage of statistical forecasting techniques could alleviate current concerns. To make statistical forecasts of how schools and their subgroups are progressing, achievement would be projected using each school’s current and recent data, estimating the trajectory of progress that schools and subgroups would follow if established trends continue. Schools that fall significantly below the trajectory needed to reach 100 percent by 2014 would not make AYP and would thus become subject to NCLB’s accountability provisions. This procedure would remedy the arbitrariness of state AMOs and subgroup sizes, replacing them with consistent measures. It would also give all schools an incentive to help all students achieve immediately-and avoid the train wreck of mass failure now down the tracks.

Q: Is it fair to penalize an entire school when a single group of students underperforms?

H/W: Contrary to conventional wisdom and the phrasing of this question, the school improvement process is not designed to penalize schools. Indeed, there is a set-aside of federal funds to which underperforming schools are entitled and an expectation that states and districts will augment these funds with additional resources and technical assistance to help schools improve.

RL: A positive feature of NCLB is its emphasis on groups of low-achieving students who have too often been ignored in the past. Disaggregated reporting of results provides a mechanism for monitoring the degree to which improving the achievement of these underserved groups of students is being achieved.

The problem, however, is that while schools can fail to meet AYP in many different ways, they can meet it in only one way. Schools with a sufficient number of students in each of several targeted groups are less likely to meet AYP targets than schools of the same size and similar performance but with a homogeneous student body (such as students who belong to one racial or ethnic group). For example, 3 out of 4 of the 937 California schools reporting results for two subgroups made their AYP target in 2003, compared with only 39 percent of the 291 schools reporting results for six subgroups.

A straightforward fix of the overidentification of schools not meeting AYP would be to change the safe harbor provision. If a subgroup of students in a school falls short of the AYP target, the school can still meet AYP if 1) the percentage of students who score below the proficient level is decreased by 10 percent from the year before, and 2) there is improvement for that subgroup on other indicators.
Changing the safe harbor provision from a 10 percent reduction in below proficient to a 3 percent reduction would go a long way toward solving the problems caused by the multiple hurdles created by subgroup reporting, while ensuring improvement in performance of all subgroups.

H/W: If a school has not met its goals with just one group of students, improvement plans can be focused on serving that group in the future. Local educators can distinguish between schools that missed their goals by a little versus schools that are far behind in student achievement.

The real anxiety over these provisions is that they will label good schools as bad. We need an accountability system that identifies every way in which our schools need to improve, but we also need a better way of communicating about it. The American public is capable of handling the truth. We need education leaders who can explain the precise problems facing their schools and how they will fix them.

Q: Will the “highly qualified teacher” provision do more good or harm?

JC: Schools are accountable for ensuring that every student is taught by a teacher who is highly qualified to teach his or her subject area. As basic a requirement as this might seem to be, it has never been demanded in America’s schools.

H/W: For decades, we have accepted high levels of out-of-field teaching as inevitable and have failed to change policies that systematically assign our weakest teachers to our weakest students. Congress exhibited great leadership by calling on states to improve teacher quality and to address the inequitable distribution of teacher talent. However, states retain tremendous discretion in how they determine who is qualified to teach, and many states have papered over their problems rather than acknowledge and confront them.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has not focused adequate attention on making sure these provisions were implemented as Congress intended. For example, the Department of Education has never reviewed the plans meant to “ensure that poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out of field teachers.” And there is little evidence that states are complying with the obligation to address these issues.

JC: NCLB’s mandate that (by 2005-06) all public school students must be taught by “highly qualified teachers” who are proficient in their subject areas is being satisfied in disingenuous ways that do not in fact ensure that teachers know their content areas. Some states have used their discretion under NCLB to adopt tests for new teachers and alternative requirements for veterans that are far too easy. Unless this portion of NCLB is modified, the law will not significantly improve the quality of teachers.

H/W: The irony is that the teacher quality provisions represent the support side of the law. There are no sanctions other than public reporting for failure to meet the goals. Research is clear that raising teacher quality is imperative for raising student achievement, especially in high-poverty and high-minority schools. If the teacher quality provisions can be said to have caused any harm, it is that states have abused their discretion to define away problems rather than addressing them.

JC: The definition of highly qualified teacher should be revised to include any teacher who possesses a bachelor’s degree and one of these three additional attributes: 1) a college major in the subject being taught; 2) passage of a subject competency test provided or approved by an independent national agency on teacher certification; or 3) demonstration through a statistically sound value-added methodology that one’s teaching has significantly raised pupil scores on state proficiency tests.

There is a dual purpose here: first, to attract more promising candidates to teaching by concentrating on skills directly related to student performance and providing alternatives to time-consuming and often ineffective traditional certification; and, second, to retain effective veteran teachers by focusing directly on their knowledge of subject matter and their teaching effectiveness and to weed out ineffective ones who are holding down positions better given to new, highly qualified teachers.

Q: What’s the role of choice in NCLB?

JC: The major new engine in NCLB for raising student achievement is choice: the right of students in faltering schools to choose a new school or private tutoring. These promising strategies for getting students better education are being resisted by the school districts responsible for implementing them. Unless this situation changes, these powerful forces for improvement, equality, and opportunity will fall well short of their potential, leaving NCLB with far fewer chances of succeeding. (See Figure 3.)

RL: In many instances choice is not an option for students attending schools in need of improvement because there are no schools eligible to receive students within the district. While NCLB encourages districts to accept transfer students from other districts, it does not require them to do so. Moreover, even when the option is available, it is seldom used. According to a report of the Harvard Civil Rights project, requests for transfers were made by only 1.9 percent of the 127,451 eligible students in Chicago in 2002-03. The corresponding figure in New York City was 2.3 percent. Just under half of the requests were granted in Chicago, while in New York City slightly fewer than a quarter of the requests were granted.

H/W: Choosing a higher-performing school is likely to benefit some students. For example, a Chicago Sun Times analysis documented that students who transferred in Chicago accelerated their learning in their new schools, and research from the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights suggests that the choice provisions are giving students of color opportunities to attend less racially isolated schools.
That said, most families don’t want to change schools; they want their neighborhood schools to change. The overwhelming majority of America’s young people will continue to be educated-or not-in their local public schools. The school improvement process, which requires a written plan in which the state and school district commit to providing additional support and assistance, has the potential to drive much more significant reform than the choice provisions.

Q: Do we keep NCLB, change it, or scrap it?

RL: NCLB has the potential to make substantial contributions to the achievement of students who have lagged behind and too often been ignored in the past.
Some features of the accountability system, however, need to be modified. The most important modification is to set reasonable performance targets for judging Adequate Yearly Progress. The need for more realistic goals applies to both the safe harbor provision of the law and the annual performance targets.

The current definitions of proficient achievement established by states lack any semblance of a common meaning. Alternatives to defining proficiency should be considered that would provide more meaningful and comparable achievement targets.

JC: Modifications are indeed warranted, and I have already mentioned several needed changes, such as making proficiency standards consistent, using NAEP as a guide, replacing AMOs, and revising the definition of a highly qualified teacher.

But these changes are not the ones most often bandied about in policy circles or recommended by interest groups on Capitol Hill. We hear talk about relaxing AYP standards or spending more money. Such recommendations undermine the law’s basic purpose. They will not save NCLB; they will gut it. This is unfortunate because NCLB deserves saving. The law has the potential to improve public education more than any federal education initiative since Brown vs. Board of Education more than 50 years ago. While Brown set the historic precedent for equality in education, NCLB could set the precedent for quality.

H/W: Commentators from across the spectrum have remarked on Americans’ propensity for championing and then dismissing education reform strategies in very short order. We are in danger of repeating this unfortunate pattern with NCLB. Instead of stretching ourselves to meet the new challenge and carefully reexamining our practices-everything from resource allocation to the preparation and support of classroom teachers-far too many education and policy leaders are deriding the demands of the law as unattainable and calling for immediate relief.

Since NCLB was enacted, we have done more to acknowledge public education’s problems than we have done to solve them. Right now, energy should be focused on making NCLB work better. That’s the only way we’ll know what genuinely merits modification when the law is up for reauthorization in 2006-07.

-John Chubb is chief education officer at Edison Schools, a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and co-author of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

-Robert Linn is professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and codirector of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

-Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust and former executive vice president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

-Ross Wiener is policy director of the Education Trust.


With Chisel or Jackhammer?

A Public School Pragmatist Takes on Education

When President George Bush nominated Margaret Spellings as his second-term secretary of education last November, he said, “I have relied on her intellect and judgment throughout my career in public service.  She has my complete trust.”

The question on most people’s minds then became, Margaret Who?

The 47-year-old mother of two (stepmother of two more) had directed the White House Domestic Policy Council for the previous four years. Nonetheless, she was so far below the Beltway radar that Karl Rove, who has a reputation for controlling that radar (and a great deal more) as the president’s chief political strategist, described Spellings as “the most influential woman in Washington that you’ve never heard of.” (Rove also volunteered that, in the 1980s, he had once asked Spellings out on a date-and she had said no.)

It came as another surprise, though, even to some education watchers, that the unheralded Michigan native (she moved with her family to Houston when she was in the 3rd grade) played a principal role in the creation of the historic No Child Left Behind law. In fact, Spellings, a 1979 political science and journalism graduate of the University of Houston, has been an education advisor to Bush since 1994, when he first ran for governor of Texas. She was a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards when Rove brought her onto the gubernatorial campaign.

During Bush’s six years as Texas’s chief executive, Spellings was a senior advisor in charge of education policy and oversaw the state’s assessment and accountability system reform. She used the Texas program as a model in drafting No Child Left Behind. “The old way was to mask the problems of underachievement and move kids through the system,” Spellings has said. “NCLB moves us from denial into confronting reality.”

Rolling up her sleeves to join Bush’s cabinet, Spellings confronts her own tough reality, that of leading the nation’s education reform movement as it struggles to become the new education establishment.

“She is very bright, articulate, does her homework, and does not like to waste time,” says one education observer who has known Spellings since her Texas School Boards days. “The key thing to remember is that she was a statehouse lobbyist on education and a pragmatist, not a manager, education bureaucrat, or academic policy type. And she does value public education.”

Some school choice advocates worry that Spellings does not share their agenda. But for NCLB proponents and critics alike, it seems especially fitting that the woman who helped make education history should assume the crucial role in determining whether that law will produce a lasting education monument.

Undaunted, Spellings says, “I am a product of our public schools. I believe in America’s schools, what they mean to each child, to each future president or future domestic policy advisor, and to the strength of our great country.”


-Morgan R. Goatley




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