Search This Blog

Monday, July 26, 2010

An Explanation of No Child Left Behind for the Lay Reader

By Dr. Monica Bomengen
Superintendent, Schools21

Unfunded mandate. High-stakes testing. Federal takeover of the public schools. Adequate Yearly Progress. No Child Left Behind.

All of these phrases have been tossed about for several years in the media. Those readers who are not professional educators (and many who are) tend not to have a clear understanding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization (ESEA) Act, nicknamed No Child Left Behind during the George W. Bush presidential administration. This article is intended to provide simple facts and a clear explanation. For clarity, I have interspersed in bold items that are commonly asked questions.

Congress authorized the first version of ESEA in 1965, establishing a statute of federal title programs to help fund public education K-12. The original act was set to expire after five years. Congress has reauthorized ESEA every five years since 1970. ESEA expressly forbids the establishment of a “national curriculum,” as public education is the clear territory of the individual states.

Q: If education is the purview of the states, then why does the federal government get involved?
A: The federal government has a “clear and compelling interest” in the success of public education. That is why the U.S. Department of Education was created.

Q: Wait a minute. I thought that the new Common Core Standards was a national curriculum?
A: The CCS was commissioned by the governors of the states and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Each state will decide on its own whether to adopt the standards (North Carolina recently did adopt them). This is not a national curriculum imposed by the federal government.

Under ESEA, there is a series of “title” programs that establish funding pools. These monies are distributed in block grants to the states to assist with the expenses of educating challenging students, purchasing instructional materials, professional development of employees, promoting school safety, and educational research. Title I is the most famous of the programs and provides funding for the education of low-income students. Students who are economically disadvantaged are counted by enrollment in the federal free and reduced lunch program.

Q: So the federal government is spending billions of dollars on education? And this is why the feds are forcing high-stakes tests and other mandates onto the public schools?
A: Yes and no. The federal government spends about $20 billion annually on K-12 public education. This amounts to about 8.5% of all public education spending in the U.S., less than a dime on the dollar. The rest of the funding comes from states and local governments, with a small percentage coming from private funders. However, other than education of special needs children, public schools are not required to take any federal money at all, nor are they required to comply with any federal guidelines, such as high-stakes testing, unless they do “opt in” to the funding pools. More than two-thirds of all federal monies expended on public education are spent on Title I programs for economically disadvantaged children and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) programs for special education students.

To put it as simply as possible, states cannot “opt out” of educating special needs students. The federal government provides extensive supplemental funding to defray the expenses associated with special education, including transportation, physical and occupational therapy, instructional materials, psychological testing, and other extraordinary expenses not associated with “regular” education.

Everything else is up to the states. State departments of education that decide to participate in the Title I program are required to conduct annual testing of students to determine levels of proficiency in reading and mathematics in grades 3 to 10. These are the so-called “high stakes” tests. It is up to the states to develop their own testing programs for approval by the U.S. Department of Education. It is then up to local schools to administer the tests and the states then report the results. Test results must now be disaggregated by “subgroups,” to show not only how the school as a whole performs, but also the proficiency of economically disadvantaged students, special education students, English language learners, and other subgroups. This prevents the “law of large numbers” from allowing schools and districts to hide the lower performance of certain subgroups by claiming that the school as a whole is performing well.

Q: So why do school officials at the state and local levels across the country claim that NCLB is an unfunded mandate?
A: This claim is an attempt by the national offices of the two largest education employees unions to mischaracterize the purpose of the law and sway the public to think that the federal government is trying to the take over the public school system. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have launched a systematic assault against NCLB since its initial passage. This assault is in keeping with their political campaign to prevent any effort to increase accountability for the quality of education in this country. With the advent of NCLB and the separation of test score reports into subgroups, it has become increasingly clear that some teachers and schools are much more effective than others at producing students who are proficient academically. This clarity is particularly pronounced in high-need schools with large percentages of disadvantaged students. Recent research is causing the call of performance-based teacher salaries to be sounded much more loudly than ever before. The NEA and the AFT are completely invested in maintaining the status quo, whereby teachers are paid based on how long they have been employed and how advanced their degrees are, not by on how well their students perform (and improve) on objective standardized tests. These two groups provide school officials and teachers with “talking points” that mischaracterize the intent and effect of NCLB.

The goal of the ESEA reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind was to ensure that all students demonstrate grade-level proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014. Schools must also meet attendance goals and make progress toward increasing high school graduation rates. All of this is, remember, in exchange for accepting federal money that the states are not required to take. Schools and districts that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward this goal, as defined by the U.S. DOE, are subject to an increasingly severe set of sanctions, culminating in eventual takeover of the school by the state, reconstitution of the school as a charter school, firing of the entire staff, and other radical measures. In the interim, parents are permitted to take their children out of a “failing” school and the district must provide transportation to a local district school of the family’s choice. Districts are also required to offer supplemental educational services outside the school day, at no charge and with transportation provided, for students who do not demonstrate proficiency on the state tests.

I hope that this explanation of NCLB has provided clarity and understanding for the reader. If you have questions, you may email them to me at