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NCLB: It’s off target

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As Congress was debating changes in the No Child Left Behind law this fall, the School District began putting together an improvement plan for 70 schools that have repeatedly failed to make their “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) targets under NCLB. This is a good time to take stock of the federal law and whether it is getting us any closer to the goal of leaving no child behind.

The law speaks to a number of important goals. By insisting that data about student performance be “disaggregated,” it forces schools to look at all parts of their populations and to find remedies wherever groups may have been neglected. NCLB makes clear that we should seek proficiency across the board, not just a passing grade. The law pressures schools and districts not to put untrained or unqualified teachers in front of classrooms, which has been a widespread problem in districts like Philadelphia. And the law says that schools must be held accountable for results.

One way to judge whether that accountability system is having the desired effect is to look at the 70 Philadelphia schools classified as in “Corrective Action II.” These schools have fallen short of the NCLB standards for five years or more.

Unfortunately, what we see so far is that NCLB has provided neither a good diagnosis of the problem schools nor an effective treatment.

The schools that have landed in “Corrective Action II” mostly serve the city’s poorest children. School resources are woefully inadequate to deal with student needs, yet NCLB hasn’t closed the resource gap. Many of the students arrive far behind. But instead of measuring whether students are making progress and catching up with their peers year-by-year, NCLB’s focus is on the number of students at or above “proficient.”

New state analysis of the “value added” by schools suggests that many of these schools labeled as failing by NCLB are actually making across-the-board gains with their students. AYP is too crude a measure to pinpoint the most troubled schools. Even taking on faith that test results aren’t manipulated, the most sophisticated analysis of reading and math scores still doesn’t tell us enough about a school to know if it is effective. The school climate, its openness to parents, and relationships among school staff are other critical determinants of whether a school supports student success.

So far, the remedies offered at schools not making AYP – tutoring and school choice for families at these schools – have benefited few. And labeling schools as low performing has prompted schools to narrow their focus to prepare for the test. Intellectual life in our most impoverished schools becomes more impoverished. Schools often turn toward drilling on discrete skills in reading and math – neglecting vital learning activities like reading literature, defending ideas verbally or in writing, and solving real-world problems. Untested subjects like the arts, history, and foreign languages are de-emphasized or abandoned.

Some fear the next step for Corrective Action II schools here will be to subject them to the unproven restructuring remedies called for by NCLB – charter conversion, privatization, or replacement of the staff. The District has offered school communities a say in deciding on the remedies. But unfortunately, despite a national fuss about low-scoring schools, neither the District, the state, nor the feds have come up with an adequate package of strategies and resources for uplifting the schools that truly are performing poorly.

That failure tells us something. In the words of a “Joint Statement” on NCLB signed by over 140 education and civil rights organizations, “the law’s emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement.”

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