-- a Gerald Bracey Report on the Condition of Education
THE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT, A PLAN FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF PUBLIC EDUCATION: JUST SAY NO
Gerald W. Bracey
Gerald W. Bracey is an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and an Associate Professor at George Mason University. His most recent books are The War on America's Public Schools (Allyn & Bacon, 2002) and Put to the Test: An Educator's and Consumer's Guide to Standardized Testing (Revised edition, Phi Delta Kappa International, 2002). The opinions are his own.
The No Child Left Behind Act is a trap. It is the grand scheme of the school privatizers. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sets up public schools for the final knock down.
Paranoia? Hardly. Consider that the Bush administration is de-regulating every pollution producing industry in sight while cutting Superfund cleanup money. It has rolled back regulations on power plants and snowmobiles and wants to take protection away from 20,000,000 acres of wetlands (20% of the total). President Bush's response to global warming: “Deal with it!” by which he means, adjust to it while we make the world safe for SUVs. The president wants to outsource hundreds of thousands of government jobs to private corporations. He wants, in other words, to get the government out of government.
Would an administration with such an anti-regulatory, pro-private sector policy perspective turn around and impose harsh, straitjacket requirements on schools, demands that would bankrupt any business? Of course not. Unless it had an ulterior purpose.
Recall that the president's original 2001 proposal provided vouchers to let children attend private schools at taxpayer expense. Congress, chastised by the massive defeats vouchers suffered in referenda in California and Michigan in the 2000 election (voucher proponents outspent opponents 2-1, but the measures went down in flames, 70-30, in both states), stripped the voucher provisions from the bill. They didn't strip them from Karl Rove's mind. After the 2002 elections, the Wall Street Journal declared "GOP's Election Gains Give School Vouchers a Second Wind." They'll be back. In fact, they already are. President Bush has put $75 million for vouchers for the District of Columbia in his 2004 budget proposal and some congressmen want to extend their use to other cities as well
There are any number of impossible-to-meet provisions in the NCLB, but let's take just two of the most prominent: those for testing and for teacher qualifications. The federal government cannot force NCLB on states, but any state that wants NCLB money must agree to test all children in grades three through eight every year in reading and math and, two years later, science as well. The tests must be based on "challenging" standards and schools must show "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) until, after 12 years, all of the schools' students attain the "proficient" level. The school must demonstrate AYP overall and separately for all major ethnic and socio-economic groups, special education students and English Language Learners. And pigs will fly.
The massive testing requirements alone will force many states to spend massive amounts of money to develop, administer, analyze and report the test results and other data needed for mandatory "report cards" schools must develop and send to parents. Many states will have to abandon their own programs labored over for the last decade--or two. Their costs may well exceed what NCLB provides. An analysis by Rutland, Vermont School Superintendent, William Mathis, found that the state will receive $52 million dollars from NCLB, but that it will cost the Green Mountain State $158 million to implement the law's provisions. Mathis estimates that national cost to states between $84 billion and $148 billion.
The word "proficient" is a trap, too. According to the law, each state decides how to define it, but the word already has great currency in education circles as part of the lingo surrounding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is one of the NAEP achievement levels, the others being "below basic," "basic" and "advanced." Not many children attain the proficient level on NAEP tests.
Although in common parlance, the NAEP achievement levels have been rejected by everyone who has ever studied them: UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing (CRESST), the General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as by individual psychometricians such as Lyle Jones of the University of North Carolina. The studies agree that the methods used are flawed and, more importantly, the results don't accord with any other data.
For instance, Jones pointed out that American fourth-graders were well above average on the mathematics tests of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), yet only 18% reached the proficient level and a meager two percent scored at the advanced level in the 1996 NAEP mathematics. Similar low percentages are seen in the 1996 NAEP Science assessment and TIMSS Science where American fourth-graders were third in the world among 26 nations. Finally, on the 2000 NAEP reading assessment, only 32% of fourth-graders attained proficient or better, but American 9-year-olds were second in the world among 27 countries in the international reading study, How in the World Do Students Read? It makes no sense that American kids do so poorly on domestic measures such as NAEP but stack up well against the rest of the industrialized world.
The NAEP achievement levels were developed at a time when the National Assessment Governing Board was controlled by Chester E. Finn, Jr., and other ideologues on the Right. Their purpose was to sustain the sense of crisis created by 1983’s golden treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics, “A Nation At Risk.” NABG hired three of the most respected evaluators in the country to evaluate the NAEP standards and standard setting process. When the evaluators reported that the process didn’t work, NAGB summarily fired them. Or tried to. The contract forbade it.
When NAEP was first introduced, the enabling law forbade it to report at the state level. Congress revised the law in 1988 to make state reporting possible and currently about 40 states volunteer (and pay) to receive state-level information. Under NCLB, state-level NAEP goes from voluntary to mandatory. All states must participate in the biennial NAEP reading and math assessments to "confirm" their own results. Studies have already shown that a much smaller proportion of students reaches proficient on NAEP than on the various state tests. Because the NAEP levels are exceedingly high, Robert Linn, co-director of CRESST observed that even getting all children to even the "basic" level on NAEP would constitute a mighty challenge.
The NCLB bill contains incentives for states to start at a low level (to have any prayer of achieving AYP). This is why, on a preliminary analysis of "failing schools" in various states, Michigan, with high standards had 1513 failing schools, and Arkansas, with low standards, had none. Yet on the fourth grade NAEP reading assessment in 2000, Michigan had 28 percent of its students at or above proficient while Arkansas had only 23. Differences like this will turn into discrepancies between what the state assessments say and what NAEP says about how many students in a state are or are not proficient. Critics and profit seekers will take the discrepancy between the state results and the NAEP results as evidence that the schools are still failing and that the states and districts are lying to their citizens about school quality.
Districts and schools that fail to make AYP are subject to increasingly severe--and unworkable--sanctions. Their staffs can be fired, their kids sent to another district, the district abolished.
Using the original formulation, the White House's own calculations revealed that had NCLB been in place for a few years, about 90% of the schools in North Carolina and Texas would have been labeled "failing schools." North Carolina and Texas? These are states that have been singled out in recent years for their progress on a variety of tests. If they can't meet the standards, what hope is there for the rest? None--that's the purpose of the law. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that 90% of all schools would fail while simulations by the Council of Chief State School Officers put the failure rate at only 88%. As a consequence, some wags are beginning to refer to the law as LNSS: Let No School Succeed.
In a move clearly aimed at greasing the skids for vouchers, the U. S. Department of Education put out regulations that make no sense at all. As a first step to quashing failing schools, children in those schools must be offered the option of going to a more successful one, successful defined solely in terms of test scores. It does not matter if the "successful" schools are already stuffed to the gills. They must hire more teachers (where they will find them is something of a mystery), bring in trailers or build more classrooms (where they will get the money is something of a mystery). They must, in the words of Under Secretary Eugene Hickok, build capacity. Only if the arriving students would so crowd the schools as to violate fire or other safety and health codes, can they be denied access. Thus, in theory, we could face a situation in which virtually all students attend schools currently enrolling only 10% of students. In some places, one must truly wonder where kids will go. Los Angeles has enough classroom space for 145,000 high schoolers. The district currently has 165,000 with a projected 200,000 by 2005.
There are more than a few technical problems with the concept of AYP. Researchers have found that test scores at the school level are quite volatile from year to year. According to RAND researcher David Grissmer, the tests would not identify the good and the bad schools, but only the lucky and unlucky ones. Not only are the test scores volatile, most of the volatility is associated with factors that have nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom.
No one has given any consideration to student mobility. Nationally, 20% of American students change schools each year. In urban areas the figure is more like 50% and in some instances, the students in a building at the end of the year are not those who started there in the fall. How, then, can the school be considered failing or succeeding?
Similarly, nothing in the law takes into account the phenomenon of summer loss. This is critical. Disadvantaged students show substantial summer loss while middle class and affluent students hold their own in mathematics and actually gain over the summer months in reading. One study found that poor and middle class students gained the same amount during the school year, but, because of summer losses, the poor students fell farther and farther behind their middle class peers as they moved from first to fifth grade. Thus schools that actually make adequate yearly progress during the school year will get labeled as failures because of what happens during the summer months.
Moreover, no one has given any attention to what happens when large numbers of children leave "failing" schools for more successful ones (the U. S. Department of Education has given large grants for publicity campaigns to insure that parents are aware of this option). Suppose the arriving students raise the average class size from 22 to 29 students. This alone could easily transform a successful school into a failing one.
And what kinds of test scores will the arriving students bring? The legislation demands that schools give priority to the neediest students--those with the lowest test scores. The arrival of large numbers of low-scoring students might well convert a successful school into a failing one. At the same time, since the departing students take their low scores with them, the sending school's test scores will automatically rise. But if the sending school gets out of the failing category, it doesn't get the kids back. It only gets to stop paying for their transportation, thereby turning NCLB into an unfunded mandate on parents.
The above problems present sufficient difficulties for schools, but their lives become more arduous because they must to disaggregate the data below the school level. We have mentioned already that school-level test scores show volatility from year to year. Imagine what kind of instability we'll see when we have report by smaller units: blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, special education students, kids on free-and-reduced price lunches, and English Language Learners. And if one group doesn't show AYP, the school takes the hit.
When the pre-ordained high failure rate occurs, vouchers and privatization will be touted as the only possible cures. Subsequent to the voucher defeats in Michigan and California, voucher advocates have stopped touting vouchers as a cure-all for the whole nation on market grounds and have started pushing them for poor people on civil rights grounds. They contend that middle class people aren't interested in vouchers because they think their public schools are good (they're right). But with the high failure rates guaranteed by NCLB, even those good schools will fail--51% of the schools North Carolina recognized for
"exemplary growth" failed under NCLB. Conservative school critic, Denis Doyle wrote that the NCLB means that the nation is about to be "inundated in a sea of bad news" and that the schools are going to get "pole-axed."
The privatizers will shout "The school system has proven it is an ossified government monopoly that can't reform itself (Chester Finn shouted precisely this in 1998 in the Wall Street Journal). You've had your chance. We warned you. We gave you 'Nation At Risk' over twenty years ago. Nothing has changed. It's time to apply American business expertise to education." Right, as in Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Imclone, WorldCom, the 993 companies that have "adjusted" their accounting reports in the last five years, and the myriad dot.coms that failed because their officers didn't have a clue about how to run a business (How come no one ever criticizes business schools?).
If not yet in bankruptcy court, Chris Whittle and his Edison Schools Inc, will be waiting (Edison stock has been as high as $39 a share, but in February, 2003 it was hovering around $1.35; in ten years, the company has failed to show a profit in even one quarter). Recall that Whittle announced his plan for a national system of private schools in 1991 when President George Herbert Walker Bush was riding high after the Gulf War. So certain was a Bush re-election—coronation, actually—that the most likely Democratic candidates declined to run and left the certain defeat to the Governor of Arkansas.
Recall, too, that Whittle had paid Bush’s secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, $125,000 as a consultant while Alexander was Governor of Tennessee (Whittle Communications was headquartered in Knoxville). Alexander also bought $10,000 worth of Whittle Communications stock. He transferred the stock to his wife when he became president of the University of Tennessee (for some reason, his wife also wrote a check to Whittle for the shares. Apparently, Whittle never cashed either one of them, but he later bought the stock back for $330,000
Whittle's original grandiose plan prophesied 200 private schools by 1996 and 1000 by 2000 (he currently manages, not owns, about 130 public schools). He said it would require about $1 billion to create a prototype of his scheme and another $2 to ramp it up to a national scale. Where on earth would he get that kind of money? Whittle said from bankers and investors. Three billion from investors who had already lost about $400 million on his earlier adventure, Channel One?
Whittle actually needed Bush and Alexander to push their school voucher plan through Congress. Then children could use those vouchers to attend Edison schools.
When the unthinkable happened and Bush lost, Whittle had to fall back on managing a few public schools. Whittle no doubt already has an advertising campaign ready for when the failing grades start arriving. He will then portray the Edison "model" as the only means of consistently achieving AYP, even though evaluations have found Edison achievement results mixed at best and a dozen schools that Edison lists as showing "positive" trends have terminated their contracts.
But Edison has friends in high places. Lamar Alexander is now a Senator who managed, despite his freshman status, to wrangle a seat on the education committee. Another fan, Eugene Hickok, is Deputy Secretary of Education (Hickok was responsible for persuading then-Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge, to impose Edison on Philadelphia schools). And a third Whittle pal and voucher advocate, Lisa Keegan, heads the Education Leaders Council (in which Hickok was very active before taking his current appointment), which has received millions in no-bid contracts from Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Whittle will be ready to roll if the moment comes.
As will be former secretary of education, William J. Bennett. Bennett now heads K12, Inc. After decades of warning people that computers offer no educational advantages, Bennett converted and is now CEO of this company that produces on-line curriculum materials. The "supplementary services" provisions of NCLB offer Whittle, Bennett and other private companies opportunities after the public schools "fail."
The testing requirements alone are enough to consign the schools to failure. The requirements for "highly qualified" teachers simply hit the schools while they're down. All current teachers in schools receiving NCLB funds must be "highly qualified" by 2005-2006, as must anyone who was hired after the 2002-2003 school year began. By "highly qualified," NCLB means those who hold at least a bachelor's degree, have full state certification (or have passed the state's licensing exam), and who have not had any certification requirements waived on "an emergency, provisional, or temporary basis."
There are nationwide shortages of people with such qualifications in mathematics, science and special education--and the cities. Chicago says 25% of the teachers in low-performing schools don't meet the requirements, while Baltimore put the figure at 31%. A 2003 survey commissioned by Education Week shows that 22% of all high school students take a course from a teacher without even a minor in the subject. For high-poverty high schools, the figure is 32% and for high-poverty middle schools it is 44%. These precise figures are recent but the teacher qualification problem has been known for some time. We can only assume that the framers of the legislation knew in advance that states could not meet the requirements. They just didn't care.
Even classroom paraprofessionals must have completed two years of college and have an associate's degree or have passed a state test on content and teaching skills. New hires must meet this requirement as of January 8, 2003; existing paraprofessionals have four years to ratchet up their credentials.
Paraprofessionals are low-salaried staff who often come from lower-income neighborhoods. Many urban education experts contend that they are the best possible candidates to become accredited teachers--they are familiar with the situation and know what they're getting into and have shown that they can deal with it. But there is no federal money to assist them to their degrees and if they should attain one, they will no doubt find more attractive salaries outside of the school. And better working conditions--NCLB greatly restricts what services they can provide to children. They can't teach, for instance unless, "directly supervised" by a teacher.
Harry Reid, the Democratic whip in the Senate is said to have gathered some education lobbyists together and asked, "How on earth could you have let this happen?" ("on earth" was not actually the phrase he used). How, indeed? Well, money can be attractive and addictive. How else to explain Democrat George Miller and Ted Kennedy's willingness to endorse President Bush's proposal? Kennedy and Miller now complain that Bush didn't deliver the promised dollars--their versions contained $10 billion more than the $1.4 billion of new money actually appropriated. Some states are already thinking that their costs--in dollars, not even counting hassle--might well be more than they get from NCLB. David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that the cost of program to states could run as high as $35 billion.
Thomas Gaffey, a state legislator in Connecticut says, "I'm sitting here shaking my head. I knew this was loaded with problems, but what the heck was going through their minds?" What indeed? States should look at the lucre-drug that Bush and the NCLB are offering them and just say “No!”
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 Robert a. Frahm, "Lawmakers Hear Criticism of Education Reform Law." Hartford Courant, February 8, 2003, p. 1.
© 2003 Gerald Bracey
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