The Denver Post
May 23, 2004
The good, the bad and the hopeful
The sweeping federal education legislation called No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, has spawned its fair share of newspaper coverage and a mountain of professional articles, with play-on-word titles like "No Child Left Untested" and "No School Left Unscathed." What is it about this latest directive from Washington that has educators (plus parents and others) so up in arms?
Unlike previous federal education laws, which have focused on educational access for the disenfranchised (poor, minority, and special-needs students), No Child Left Behind takes public education to the another level by requiring academic proficiency for all students. Nothing wrong with that. Hasn't it always been the goal of public education to ensure that students can read, write, and compute? School leaders absolutely concur with the goal of the law. But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details.
The new requirement for academic proficiency is phased in over 12 years with benchmarks along the way, better known in the law as "adequate yearly progress." The expectation is that all students become proficient in core subjects within that time. It means closing the achievement gap that currently exists between majority students and other groups such as ethnic minorities, poor kids, those learning English and special-needs students. Far easier said than done.
Another requirement of the law is that schools provide highly qualified teachers and teaching assistants. I know of no school that doesn't want highly qualified teachers and staff. But the definition of highly qualified, negotiated between states and the U.S. Department of Education, has left many schools, particularly in rural areas, trying to explain to their communities (another requirement of the law) why successful, effective teachers are considered unqualified. Add to that the problem of attracting good teachers to rural areas or districts with challenging populations, and you'll know why many administrators are tearing their hair out trying to comply with the law.
A new element in the federal law pertains to school choice. No Child Left Behind requires that a portion of federal dollars be funneled to parents of low-performing students so they can purchase tutoring services or transport those students to a higher performing school. School leaders see this requirement both as an intrusion upon local control and as an entree for vouchers
One of the biggest concerns for school leaders about this law is its punitive nature. Rather than helping struggling schools to get better, it results in schools being labeled "failing" and diverts their funding to less needy schools or the private sector.
In spite of its flaws, much good can come of No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, local decision-making doesn't always produce the kind of change that is needed, fast enough, to give our citizens the best opportunities for success. It took federal government leadership to enact much needed civil rights legislation in the mid 1960s. It took federal equal-opportunity laws brought about by the Brown vs. Board of Education court decision 50 years ago to give minority students a better shot at a good education.
There is no doubt that more students can achieve at much higher levels. As one administrator said, "One of the big obstacles we face is attitude. The only way to implement NCLB is to begin with the attitude of 'No excuses; all students can learn."' But it takes parents and communities, in partnership with schools, to help students be more successful.
We know that high expectations from adults are a key ingredient to student success. The research is overwhelming. Student performance will rise to the level of our expectations. Colorado has high standards in place. If we send clear signals to our students that they can learn and achieve at higher levels, if we offer guidance and support when they struggle, they can and will achieve.
How about a more productive role for the federal government? How about truly listening to and learning from those charged with implementation about what's working and what's not? Because of the new direction and comprehensive nature of this legislation, Congress knows that changes are needed.
Another useful role would be offering a set of principles and guidelines, along with information about the best practices and useful resources, to help states reshape their accountability systems. A good deal of research is now available about how to measure school and district performance in multiple ways. Comparative information would be helpful to states as they engage in this work.
In Colorado, school districts are faced with making sense of three separate accountability systems: school report cards, state accreditation and No Child Left Behind mandates. The three systems often produce conflicting results that are confusing to staff and parents. The accreditation system, while imperfect, is viewed as providing important information about school performance and motivation for improving schools. There is widespread belief that continued work on this system would produce an accountability system meaningful to parents and educators.
The greatest promise for improving education in Colorado is to develop an accountability system that clearly aligns local, state and federal expectations. Much good work has already been done in Colorado and other states. In fact, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Donnell-Kay Foundation are leading an accountability task force that is studying this issue. Leaders in education, business and the community are invited to join in this effort.
John C. Hefty is outgoing superintendent of schools in Brighton and incoming executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives