Educators wonder if it's time to leave 'No child left behind' law behind
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2008 - With 10 Blue Ribbon schools, a high graduation rate and 24 National Merit finalists, the Rockwood School District is one of the best in the region. It takes in several wealthy municipalities, including Chesterfield and Wildwood, in west St. Louis County and has won recognition for "Distinction in Performance" from the Missouri Department of Education.
But none of these honors matters when it comes to No Child Left Behind. For the second year in a row, high-performing Rockwood landed on the state's list of 406 districts that didn't make adequate academic progress under the federal law. While most of its students exceeded all proficiency targets, the district got flagged because some students, including African Americans and Hispanics, didn't meet the target. That caused Rockwood's overall score to drop.
Rockwood can take some solace in the fact that it's in pretty impressive company. Other highly regarded districts that also didn't make the grade included Kirkwood, Lindbergh, Brentwood, Clayton and Ladue. Of Missouri's 552 school districts, only 146 met all the standards.
Flaws In 'No Child' Law
When President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, Rockwood and other school districts hope the federal government will change -- or abolish -- the law. They argue that No Child's rules distort how well districts and their students are performing. The law took effect in 2002 with the goal of requiring all students to make yearly progress and reach proficiency in math and English by 2014. Once a shining cornerstone of the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind is now regularly criticized as the wrong approach to lifting up low-scoring students. Districts want officials in Washington to use other measures to determine how well students are performing.
"One of the steps could be to allow school districts to use multiple measures to assess student achievement or progress," says Scott Spurgeon, associate superintendent for school leadership and curriculum in the Rockwood District.
Clayton District officials also see need for improving how progress is measured.
"Right now, it's a yardstick measure, which says you're either above the line or below" adequate yearly progress, says Chris Tennill, spokesperson for the Clayton School District.
"It doesn't take into account growth if you're still below the line. Let's take reading, for example. Let's say a kid reads three grade levels below and if in a year, he jumps two and a half years, that's amazing. There's growth, positive movement. But he's still below level."
Tennill says the challenge for Missouri under the No Child law is to "figure out a way to measure growth and take into account individual achievement, to be able to measure kids against their own individual barometers. That would be a great step forward."
Still, the law has supporters, too. Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner of Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, praises the law and the efforts of Missouri schools to comply with it. But, he adds, some provisions of No Child need to change.
Johnson says Missouri schools maintain high standards and high expectations, based partly on the fact that its state test, the MAP, is relatively difficult. The level of student proficiency and above on the MAP is between 44 percent and 48 percent.
"If you start out with 44 to 48 percent proficiency and have a target of 100 percent proficiency by 2014, you can see the problem," Johnson says.
Johnson believes that the federal law would be more useful if policymakers "move toward a growth model" instead of expecting all children to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. The alternative approach would mean giving districts credit for progress. This, he says, is preferable to simply dismissing students' and district's efforts by saying they didn't meet expectations.
State officials say they have a model in the pilot stage that would help refine the way districts measure yearly progress. In time, state officials say, the model might change the way the state rates districts because it might give districts credit for students whose scores show academic growth even if they didn't make adequate progress.
'No Child' Underfunded
Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri NEA, says No Child is flawed because it focuses on punishing schools for making inadequate progress.
"We need to identify schools that need help and provide the resources to help them succeed," he says. "We need to move toward more measurements of success, not just a test score. One could be the quality of instruction, for example, and measuring whether students are able to work effectively as part of teams in solving problems."
Full funding of the law would be a major step toward making it more effective, Fajen argues.
By that yardstick, the No Child law was crippled from the start by inadequate funding. In the first year, authorized funding stood at $26.4 billion, but Congress appropriated $22.2 billion, leaving a funding gap of $4.2 billion, according to NEA statistics. In fact, the sharp gap between authorization and appropriation has widened over the years. By 2009, the cumulative gap between what was authorized and what was appropriated totaled more than $85 billion.
Congress passed no education funding bill for the 2009 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution. That means that the funding level for education won't change for the next fiscal year, but the new Congress could change that with a new funding bill.
More Funding Under Obama?
Although he has to focus first on economic issues, Obama has said that he intends to spend more on education and to change some policies.
Obama's website says "teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests," a comment that certainly would bring cheering from teachers who say they spend the school year teaching the test and they don't get much opportunity to tap their own creativity to help children learn.
Obama promises not only to boost funding for No Child but also to demand accountability by "supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them."
He also proposes a "Zero to Five" plan of early care and education for infants and promises to help states move toward universal pre-school.
Obama doesn't say how much his No Child and early education measures will cost or where he will get the money to pay for them, but these steps are applauded by educators in Missouri.
"This isn't an endorsement of Barack Obama, but increases in early childhood education funding would be beneficial," says Johnson of the state Department of Education.
Getting kids prepared at an early age, he says, will make a lot of difference in how they perform later in life, in the classroom and on MAP and other tests.
Given the state of the national economy, however, no state officials would predict whether Obama would be able to channel more money into No Child Left Behind or other education initiatives.