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A law that has shaped education like no law before

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

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted more than five years ago, education in the United States – not to mention the education debate – has not been the same.

Technically, the law is the 2002 version of the 42-year-old federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with a catchy new name. But it is much more than that.

To an unprecedented degree, NCLB has expanded the reach of the federal government into local education policy and has driven what happens in classrooms, schools and districts like no law before it.

Building on a standards movement that began in the 1990’s, it set the ambitious – some would say unattainable – goal that all students should reach proficient levels in math and reading by 2014, regardless of disability, ethnicity, command of English, or socio-economic status.

It required each state to set annual improvement goals for its schools and to publicize test results both overall and by demographic subgroup. As a consequence, schools could no longer mask their failure to educate children of color, those with disabilities, or English language learners.

A signature initiative of the Bush administration, the law was a compromise between Democrats and Republicans. It passed Congress with the help of prominent Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

But the bipartisanship goes both ways. As school districts started to grapple with meeting its requirements, traditional adversaries united in opposition – teachers’ unions wary of too much testing lined up on the same side as conservatives who dislike federal interference.

At the same time, it split the civil rights community: some groups believe that the renewed attention on poor children and children of color is driving academic progress, while others believe that schools serving these children are subjected to unproven and punitive reform strategies, including conversion to charters, privatization, or replacement of staff.

The law did not set national standards for academics or teacher quality – leaving those things up to the states. In response, states have set widely varying benchmarks. And while federal education aid has increased since the law was enacted, a broad coalition of groups has complained that the increases don’t come close to paying for the kinds of reforms needed in struggling schools to bring them up to speed. Kennedy has argued that the federal investment should have jumped fourfold to $80 billion. Instead, it has increased from about $17 billion to $24 billion.

This split is evident as Congress tries to reauthorize the law. After months of work, key Congressional leaders now doubt that any bill will move this year. Schools and districts may have to live under the law’s current conditions until 2010.

Locally, NCLB has had a number of ramifications. Not surprisingly, most of Pennsylvania’s schools that have been tagged as poorly performing are located in Philadelphia, Chester, and other impoverished areas. But the public reporting of test results has also exposed the failure of many well-heeled suburban districts to adequately educate their students of color, and disabled and low-income students, and this has fueled opposition to the law.

Following are summaries of some of the legislation’s most important provisions and how they have played out in Philadelphia:

Testing and accountability

NCLB requires schools to test students every year in reading and math in grades three through eight and in grade 11, reporting the results broken down by student subgroups, including race, ethnicity, disability, English-language status, and income. To make “Adequate Yearly Progress” or AYP, the school as a whole and all the subgroups must meet proficiency targets in both reading and math or show rapid improvement. Other targets must also be met, including test participation and attendance rates, or graduation rates for high schools. Miss even one of these targets and the school does not make AYP.

Right now, 70 schools in Philadelphia have fallen short for five or more years and are in “Corrective Action II,” meaning that they face the most drastic remedies, including outsourcing to private management or charter conversion. But many of these schools had already been taken over by outside management companies before NCLB took effect – leaving open the question of what else might work. The School District is promising a plan this winter for the “Corrective Action” schools (see Restructuring process looms for 70 schools).

At best, in 2004, 60 percent of Philadelphia schools reached all their AYP targets. That has fallen to 40 percent as those targets, set by the state, become steadily tougher.

Here, as elsewhere, educators have complained that the focus on reading and math has squeezed out other subjects and turned schools into test-prep facilities, casting doubt on the value of the higher test scores, especially since they have been concentrated in the lower grades.

At the same time, many schools have been stung with the stigma of failure through labels like “School Improvement I” and “Corrective Action II.” But it is impossible to say how much those stigmas have contributed to any improvement in a school’s achievement.

Teacher quality

NCLB requires all schools to have a “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom. It left it up to the states to define “highly qualified,” but did set some minimal requirements. One emphasized content knowledge – for instance, by mandating that seventh- and eighth-grade teachers be able to demonstrate mastery of the subjects they are teaching, either through a college major or by passing a Praxis teacher certification test.

However, as states discovered that many veteran teachers couldn’t pass the tests or otherwise qualify, some, including Pennsylvania, solved the problem by creating all new “bridge certificates,” which essentially grandfathered in veteran teachers based largely on their experience. At the same time, the federal rules granted “highly qualified” status to teachers coming through favored alternative preparation programs like Teach for America who had never been in a classroom or attended a university-based teacher training program.

Betsey Useem of Research for Action, who has written several reports on this issue, said that on balance NCLB has improved teacher quality in Philadelphia, especially among new hires, but has not solved the problem of teacher instability in the hardest-to-staff schools.

“It’s raised the floor on credentials and eliminated unlicensed teachers,” Useem said. “There’s an academically stronger pool coming into the teaching force.”

However, there has been neither state nor federal pressure to change teacher distribution, which is still dictated largely by individual teacher preference, and experienced teachers continue to steer clear of high-poverty schools, despite the law. The Teach for America teachers especially have been used to fill the void in the hardest-to-staff schools, and most of them leave after two years, perpetuating the problem of faculty churn.

Transfers and supplemental services

When schools have repeatedly failed to meet their AYP targets, NCLB says they must make some of their federal funding available for private tutoring and transferring students to better schools. (Schools labeled “persistently dangerous” under NCLB, because of large numbers of serious incidents, must also offer transfers.)

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, both the transferring and the tutoring, called “supplemental services,” have been little utilized by parents.

Initially, former CEO Paul Vallas fought to keep most of the federal aid for his own afterschool program, and won that battle for a year. But even when the Department of Education required the District to use all the money for private tutors, not many students signed up. The list of outside providers seeking students in Philadelphia has diminished considerably, said District spokesman Fernando Gallard, from 110 initially approved by the state to 33 this year.

Among criticisms of the law is that the tutors’ work has been largely unregulated, with little evidence presented that they are helping students.

As for transferring to better schools, that provision has had little impact. Many of the schools that are making their targets lack the space for transfers. “The popular schools are also popular with the people who live in the neighborhood,” said Gallard. This year, fewer than 200 students successfully used the school choice policy to transfer to better-performing schools.