Law is leaving children -- and educational reform -- behind
April 19, 2004
BY GARY ORFIELD
When he signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, President Bush was emphatic in claiming that ''every single child, regardless of where they live, how they're raised, the income level of their family . . . receive a first-class education in America.'' This soaring rhetoric and other glowing assertions about the benefits of the administration's historic education bill stand in stark contrast to educational reality two years later.
The Utah House of Representatives recently passed a bill that forbids the state to spend any of its money on the law's requirements. ''If the act's regulations were tea, we could have our own tea party right here in the middle of Utah,'' declared Rep. LaVar Christensen, a Republican, reflecting the prevailing rebellious mood. And in Virginia, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates voted 98-1 in January for a resolution calling on Congress to exempt the state without penalty from ''the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States.''
When 20 states and many Republican and Democratic legislators rise up in opposition to unworkable requirements and broken promises about funding, federal policymakers need to take notice.
To assess how the new law is operating at the federal, state and local levels, Harvard University's Civil Rights Project recently issued four in-depth reports that examined 11 school districts in six states -- Arizona, California, Illinois, Georgia, New York and Virginia -- as part of an ongoing national study. The research shows why educators and public officials are questioning and sometimes rejecting the No Child act, which imposes unprecedented testing and sanctions on schools and school districts. The studies found that previous state reforms and assessment strategies, linked to long-term reforms, are undermined; there are no common requirements among states, and sanctions fall especially hard on minority and integrated schools, asking affluent suburban schools for much less progress.
The No Child act has the positive goal of improving the performance of historically underperforming and underserved subgroups, primarily racial and ethnic minorities. However, schools with a high proportion of black or Latino students are often adversely affected even if they are making substantial gains. Moreover, racially integrated schools and schools with language minority students are at a statistical disadvantage because they are required to meet more achievement targets than predominantly white schools. The policies reward states that lower their proficiency standards and punish those with high ones.
Not surprisingly, in all six states studied, schools identified as needing improvement enrolled a disproportionately large number of minority and low-income students and students with limited English proficiency. In Illinois and New York -- two of the most segregated states for black and Latino students -- schools needing improvement enrolled more than twice as many minority and low-income students, on average, than schools meeting the law's definition of adequate yearly progress. In both states, sanctioned schools enrolled two to three times more minority, low-income and limited English proficient students, on average, than schools meeting the progress goal.
This is not surprising because the No Child act relies on absolute test scores to identify schools that need improvement. Because test scores strongly reflect parent education, teacher quality and other factors not the responsibility of an individual school, schools can be labeled failures even if they are making solid progress under difficult conditions.
The No Child law, unless reformed, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy where schools defined as ''failing'' will prove to be ''failing'' based on a flawed methodology for comparing schools with predominantly high minority and low-income students with suburban schools with wealthier white students. When schools are branded as failures and threatened with devastating sanctions, the law's good goal of getting highly qualified teachers to stay in schools that most need them will be undermined as the teachers leave and the school is demoralized. In other words, many low-income and minority students will be left behind and positive reforms will be derailed.
The law is now producing such anger, in part because the promised resources to implement its provisions were not provided, that its good goals and positive elements may be lost. Obviously, there is a huge need for reform and resources. Clearly, it is time for a major mid-course correction to define methods and standards that actually work.
Gary Orfield is professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.