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Rethinking the Standards and Accountability
of No Child Left Behind

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

Linda Darling-Hammond makes it clear that there are many problems associated with NCLB (No Child Left Behind) that have undermined the benefits it was intended to deliver. I agree, yet I also think it is important to make it clear that opposition to NCLB is not based on a desire to return to the past; to the time when it was possible for poorly educated students to graduate with meaningless diplomas, or when many schools showed little interest or ability in promoting higher levels of learning and achievement for all students without regard to race, SES (Supplemental Educational Services), language or background.

NCLB was promoted as a strategy to address past failures and nearly seven years after its adoption, available evidence suggests this has not occurred. Yet, despite its failings, two basic goals of NCLB remain important: students should be educated at higher academic standards and those responsible for educating them should be held accountable. NCLB has failed largely because its backers still do not realize that it takes more than a clever slogan and a dogged commitment to testing to raise standards and increase accountability in public education.

Few NCLB critics argue against the implementation of higher academic standards. However, what we have pointed out is that while it is easy to set the standards (actually it has not been that easy in several states), it is far more important for efforts to be made to insure that the standards and conditions under which students are educated are also raised. One frightening result of NCLB is that in pursuit of higher test scores, “failing” schools have been compelled to enact a number of measures that have actually undermined the quality of education and social well being of students. By judging schools on the basis of test scores, many schools and districts have felt compelled to “teach to the test” and eliminated or reduced access to subjects such as art, music and even science if they are not covered on standardized tests. Some have eliminated field trips, recess and physical education to increase the amount of time available for test preparation. In many secondary schools, students have been required to enroll in test preparation courses, some of which meet for nearly two hours per day, and in several states, students who have been unable to pass state exams have been denied diplomas. NCLB has done nothing to insure that students are taught the content of material covered on standardized tests in enriched learning environments, that they are exposed to creative and effective teachers, and have access to stimulating and rigorous curricula.

In the area of accountability, NCLB has opted for the path of least resistance, holding the most vulnerable (students) and the least protected (principals), accountable for academic performance, while other parties – elected officials, senior school administrators, teachers and parents – are not. In cities such as Chicago, New York Boston and now Los Angeles, mayors have demanded control over the public schools but never spelled out what they should be held accountable for if drop out rates remain high and test scores stay low. In a public debate over high stakes testing I asked the Superintendent of a large urban district who was an advocate for the exams how many administrators would be fired if as many as 50% of his seniors were denied diplomas as was expected the first year that the state exams were implemented. Puzzled, he responded, “Maybe a principal or two will have to go”. That June six thousand students who would have graduated under previous standards were denied diplomas and the same Superintendent, the Governor and the leading newspapers declared the results a victory for high standards. Sadly, the fact that one third of those students were recent immigrants who were illiterate in English, another third were identified as learning disabled, and the final third were students that came from high poverty districts long known for their failing schools, didn’t seem to trouble any of the advocates.

It is important to keep in mind that in addition to the Bush administration, some of the leading advocates of NCLB have been liberal legislators (Ted Kennedy and George Miller were two of the leading sponsors of NCLB in the Senate and House), and many civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and MALDEF. These advocates of NCLB have viewed the law as a tool to advance the interests of the under-served by insuring that educational standards are raised through measures designed to insure accountability. However, what these advocates have generally failed to see is that it is in order to raise academic standards and student achievement, the scope and purpose of NCLB would have to be broadened considerably so that a variety of approaches can be taken to address the needs of poor children and struggling schools. Some of these would include:

1) Responding to the non-academic needs of poor children

If we want to insure that all students have the opportunity to learn we must insure that their basic needs are met. This means that students who are hungry should be fed, that children who need coats in the winter should receive them, and those who have been abused or neglected receive the counseling and care they deserve. Expanding access to health care, pre-school, affordable housing and providing more generous parental leave policies must be included on the education reform agenda.

2) Hold state governments accountable for maintaining high standards in schools

Just as we do for the maintenance of highways, airports and the public water supply, we should insure that common standards of service are upheld at all public schools. Instead of merely labeling schools like the state of Florida that affixes letter grades on schools as a symbol of the quality of education provided there, state governments should be required to adopt opportunity to learn standards to insure that all students attend schools staffed by qualified teachers and learn in safe, clean and well maintained facilities.

3) Hold high ranking public officials accountable for addressing the needs of low performance schools

Governors, Mayors and Superintends that assume control over the operation and finance of public education must be held accountable for the performance of schools. Instead of scapegoating principals and teachers, those who want to call the shots in terms of policy should also be held accountable. Such an approach would increase the likelihood that troubled schools, which often are racially segregated and under-funded, would receive help rather than being subjected to public humiliation. Strategies such as lower teacher-pupil ratios and incentive pay for educators should be considered so that troubled schools attract and retain highly skilled professionals.

4) Make schools more responsive to the parents and families they serve through the enactment of systems of mutual accountability

To a large degree, schools in middle class communities operate with a sense of accountability to the parents they serve. Affluent, educated parents often have the ability to insist upon high quality education for their children while schools in poor communities rarely feel accountable to the parents they serve. Poor parents are more likely to defer to the decisions made by professional educators and to accept the schools they are assigned to even if they are not happy with the education their children receive. One way to insure that parents are treated with respect and as genuine partners in the education of their children is to include them on site councils and empower them to have a say in making decisions that affect the governance of the schools their children attend. Schools must also make the rights and responsibilities of parents clear and the expectations of all key parties – parents, teachers, students and administrators – explicit, so that each party can be held accountable for what they bring to the educational process.

5) Involve teachers in mentoring and evaluating their peers

In too many school districts, unions see their role largely as one of defending the rights of teachers. This occurs even when those they defend are incompetent and unfit for teaching. Rarely are teacher unions seen as advocates for improving conditions within schools (for students or teachers) or for upholding professional standards. In the small number of districts where teachers are included in the process of evaluating their peers, teaching standards have been raised and the number of teachers evaluated out of the profession has increased. Peer evaluation has also resulted in greater support provided to teachers in need. Unions must take the lead in removing incompetent teachers from classrooms as well serving as advocates for the rights of children and public education generally.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 29, 2007.

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