children still left behind
Sept. 27, 2006
SECRETARY of Education Margaret Spellings didn't quite declare "mission
accomplished" in her glowing appraisal of the successes of the federal No Child
Left Behind law in Tuesday's Open Forum. But she did suggest the nation is well
on the road toward victory in the classroom.
"High standards plus accountability plus resources equals results," she wrote.
She dinged unspecified "editorial writers" for suggesting that the law "sets the
bar too high," noting that test scores in California schools have "shot up" by 8
percentage points in just two years. She specifically praised San Francisco
schools. "In San Francisco, nearly half the students scored at grade level in
reading and math, compared to 40 percent in 2003," wrote Spellings, a key author
of the NCLB legislation.
The problem with these optimistic assessments is that they overstate the
accomplishments being attributed to the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
Spellings neglected to mention that the San Francisco Unified School District is
being punished by the federal government for failing to make "adequate yearly
progress" as defined by the No Child Left Behind law.
San Francisco hasn't only failed this year -- it has failed for three years in a
The reason is that African American students, along with special education
students, have failed to meet proficiency "targets" specified by the federal
At least 23 percent of each subgroup in the district is expected by the federal
government to be "proficient" (defined as performing at grade level) on state
tests in reading and 23.7 percent in math.
Only a third of Latino students met the proficiency goals. Even more
distressing, just 22.7 percent of all black students, who make up 13 percent of
the district's enrollment, scored at a proficient level in reading, and 21.2
percent did so in math.
Even though black students missed federal targets by a small margin, San
Francisco has for the first time been designated a district in need of "program
Along with 166 other "program improvement" districts, San Francisco is now
having to comply with a number of federal sanctions. These included having to
advise all parents that they can transfer their children from "program
improvement" schools to higher-performing ones. Ten percent of all federal Title
I funds intended for low-income students must be spent on the "highly qualified"
teacher provisions of the law.
Unless all sub-groups meet federal targets again next year, even more stringent
federal sanctions will be imposed on the district.
What's most disconcerting is that the No Child Left Behind law has failed to
accomplish one of its major goals -- closing the yawning achievement gap that
separates black and Latino students on the one hand, and whites and Asians on
In grades 6-8, for example, an impressive 74.7 percent of Asian students in San
Francisco scored at a proficient level or higher in math. Some 64.7 percent of
white students met the high standard. By contrast, a depressing 13.8 percent of
African American 6th- to 8th-graders were proficient in math, and only 20.2
percent in reading.
Even though African American scores have improved in the past five years, they
aren't catching up with higher-performing students. "The challenge for the
district is that everyone is making the same gains, so we're not seeing a
closing of the achievement gap," conceded Ky Vu, the district's director of
state and federal programs.
He noted another paradox: although the district's overall test scores are higher
than any other major urban district in California, the size of the achievement
gap is also larger than any comparable district in the state. The gap is partly
driven by the relatively high scores of students of Asian backgrounds, who
represent 4 of 10 students in the district.
Educators in San Francisco are to be commended for instituting a wide range of
initiatives to nudge up African American test scores. These include lengthening
the school day, helping teachers develop new instructional techniques and other
"enrichment" programs. "As a district we're proud of what we're doing, but we
realize there is a lot of work ahead of us," Vu told us.
San Francisco and other diverse school districts cannot relent in their efforts
to make sure that all students succeed. But it seems clear that it will take far
more than a piece of federal legislation to close a stubborn achievement gap
rooted in a potent mix of class, race, neighborhood, culture and history.
We are nowhere close to being able to declare victory.
Page B - 8
The Insiders: How Principals and Superintendents See Public Education Today
It's probably natural for leaders of organizations to be upbeat about their
institutions. Even so, the positive, almost buoyant outlook of school leaders
nationwide captured in this fourth installment of Reality Check 2006 may come as
something of a surprise to reformers and critics, including regulators enforcing
No Child Left Behind.
In many respects, local school leaders seem to operate on a very different
wavelength from many of those aiming to reform public schools. The two groups
have different assumptions about how much change today's public schools really
need. Even when they see the same problems, they often seem to strive for
To most public school superintendents (and principals to a lesser extent) local
schools are already in pretty good shape. In fact, more than half of the
nation's superintendents consider local schools to be "excellent." Most
superintendents (77 percent) and principals (79 percent) say low academic
standards are not a serious problem where they work. Superintendents are
substantially less likely than classroom teachers to believe that too many
students get passed through the system without learning. While 62 percent of
teachers say this is a "very" or "somewhat serious"
problem in local schools, just 27 percent of superintendents say the same.
School leaders in poorer, mainly minority districts tend to have a different
perspective from those in more affluent, mainly white schools. Superintendents
(67 percent) and principals (78 percent) in mainly-minority schools are more
likely to say their dropout problem is serious compared to superintendents and
principals in mainly-white districts (36 percent of both). Superintendents and
principals in mainly minority and low-income schools are also more likely to
worry about the state of math and science education locally.
Yet despite their generally positive outlook, it would be misleading to paint
local school leaders as smugly satisfied with the status quo. The vast majority
believe schools need more money, but money is not the only item on their "this
would help" list. As a group, they have an ambitious list of proposals, but many
of their goals seem to be on the policymaking backburner.
Find out more and download the full report in our special edition on Reality