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Beyond No Child Left Behind: Two New Reports Will Shake Up U.S. Education System

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Love it or hate it, the No Child Left Behind Act continues to roil the American public education system. I happen to love the debate because it is clearly highlighting mediocre academic performances by most American students and huge educational achievement gaps between students of color or with special needs or from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. More importantly, though, the debate itself is producing important policy prescriptions at the federal level for what ails our education system.

This is critical, since historically federal lawmakers have tackled the tough issues involved in educating disadvantaged students far more effectively than their state counterparts, and mostly in a bipartisan spirit. In that same spirit, two well-researched educational policy reports are now entering the national conversation, offering searing indictments of the current U.S. educational system alongside specific policy recommendations.

One report will be released next week by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined by the Center for American Progress and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute titled Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness. The report cards paint a dismal picture but also show that some states are much farther along than others in realizing improvements in their public education systems. To add our voices to the calls for fundamental change, the Center and Chamber will also present a joint platform for educational reform.

The other report was released last week by a high level, bipartisan national commission that took a close look at how the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, has been implemented and issued a remarkable report recommending numerous mid-course corrections but resoundingly renewing the “commitment to success for every child.” The report, entitled Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children, was the culmination of six national hearings with 46 witnesses of diverse perspectives and audience participation, roundtables on several issues, and review of almost 10,000 public comments to the web site of the Commission on No Child Left Behind.

The new report from the commission is a meticulous analysis of problems and unintended consequences of NCLB alongside carefully constructed recommendations that will undoubtedly make this a key document that members of Congress will consider as they undertake the NCLB reauthorization process this year. In tandem with the forthcoming U.S. Chamber of Commerce report and the separate set of progressive policy recommendations by CAP and the Chamber of Commerce, Congress will be well positioned to ensure the federal government continues to lead the way on education reform.

NCLB in Practice

To my mind, NCLB is the federal government’s primary instrument today in the battle for education equity. The law goes well beyond the legal and legislative struggles for equal educational opportunity of the 1960s and 1970s, with which I was deeply engaged, and sets forth a national goal of equal results against a standard of proficiency and with the acknowledgement of an even higher standard of advanced learning.

Thankfully, NCLB adds to the earlier civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the bases of race or ethnicity, language, disability, and gender by education institutions receiving federal funds. The law also “protects” (meaning it requires) educational equality for low income students as well.

The new report from the Commission on No Child Left Behind has made many important recommendations for NCLB improvements, particularly around the accountability structure by including the introduction of student growth measures, uniform definitions of high-school graduation rates and their inclusion in determining “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP in educational parlance. The report also calls for specifications of statistical requirements to stop the “gaming” of the current NCLB accountability system by many states, and important adjustments for measuring progress of students with disabilities and English language learners.

Other key recommendations include enhanced data reporting requirements, the creation of stronger state-based data systems, and better school improvement strategies. We at the Center are especially pleased to see a recommendation for the development of voluntary national standards—which we called for 18 months ago.

Yet the Commission is strangely both innovative and silent on needed changes to strengthen teaching and school leadership—the most important instruments for improving student achievement and the area in which the commission kicks off its new report. Its most important recommendation is the closing of the so called Title I “comparability loophole,” under which districts hide the inequity in teacher resources by averaging teacher salaries across all their schools as if every teacher was paid the same. This results in the perverse situation where low-poverty schools employ more experienced, highly paid teachers and have bigger budgets than high-poverty schools. Consequently, Title I funds often make up for the lesser amount of state and local funds in high-poverty schools instead of adding extra money to educate low-income students.  

The commission also makes a valiant stab at switching the NCLB concept of highly qualified teachers to that of highly effective ones. But it adds rather than substitutes effectiveness as the key measure, creating the term Highly Qualified Effective Teachers, and ignores the problems with the current NCLB language dealing with quality. As education reform picks up steam this year, Congress should embrace effectiveness as the sole measure of teaching competence.

The commission’s addition of a definition of highly effective principals is welcome. The requirement that states establish measurement systems for effectiveness based in part on student achievement gains is key. The assurance that ultimately ineffective teachers and principals may not teach in NCLB Title I schools—schools with large concentrations of low-income students—and the requirement of comparable numbers of effective teachers between Title I and non-Title I schools are excellent. But more work is needed with regard to educator effectiveness as Congress moves forward with the reauthorization process.  

Congress also needs to pay better attention to how the NCLB Title II funds for professional development and other activities are directed, which gets just one general paragraph in the Commission report. It would also have been useful if the Commission had acknowledged issues of working conditions in high poverty schools that affect teacher effectiveness. Congress should consider requiring that districts report for each school details about teacher mobility, teacher attendance, and facilities quality and maintenance.

The commission admirably did not back away from two especially controversial provisions of NCLB, school choice and supplemental educational services. It stuck with both of these individual improvement options for students in low performing schools and made positive recommendations for changes of both programs. But it could have gone farther.

For starters, it makes good sense to require that adequately performing schools make 10 percent of their seats available to students who want to transfer out of low-performing schools. It would make even better sense to require states to make interdistrict choice available to these students with free transportation.

Some states have many small districts of varying demographics and student performance levels bunched together where interdistrict choice would help students in low-performing schools and districts. In contrast, many large urban school districts have vast neighborhoods of racially and economically isolated students, yet on their fringes these districts often border more affluent and better performing suburban districts that could offer transfer opportunities to at least some students.

As for supplemental education services, or SES, the commission makes important procedural recommendations though for some reason fails to make any struggling student, not just low-income students, eligible for SES in schools designated as in need of improvement. But I wish the commission had made a more imaginative analysis of the use of the extra learning time that SES makes available. Congress should bear in mind that it would be exceedingly helpful to allow designated low performing schools to use SES funds to expand learning time for all their students if they can demonstrate the capacity, with outside assistance, to restructure their teaching and learning program for student success.

One of the most intriguing recommendations of the commission is the call for a complaint procedure to ensure that the requirements of NCLB are met by states and districts. This is long overdue and would reverse backward steps by Congress over the past two decades. The commission is also including “a private right of action,” in state court.

Beyond NCLB

While I have noted only a handful of the Commission recommendations, as a whole they have engendered both praise and criticism. Particularly interesting to me is the charge that federal enforcement efforts can’t work. My experience with enforcement of federal civil rights laws in education in the 1960s and 1970s makes me reluctant to write off the possibility of changing the behavior of institutions and their employees.

The reason: Many public schools and colleges over that period were desegregated and at least the latter have remained so. Intercollegiate athletic opportunities for girls and women have exploded. Students with disabilities and English language learners are much better off (though big achievement gaps remain for them). And even with regard to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which NCLB amends, several abuses in its early days were corrected by federal enforcement and congressional amendments.

Still, the biggest disappointment about the commission report is its silence on proposing new investments to provide incentives for individual schools, individual school districts, and individual states to change. Carrots and sticks together can push change faster. The TEACH Act proposals of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and the Innovation Districts proposal of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) put money behind programs designed to experiment with new ways of preparing and compensating teachers.

The Center for American Progress is also proposing new programs to support promising initiatives that can improve student learning outcomes. One is the Graduation Promise Act that we developed in partnership with Jobs for the Future. The proposed legislation is focused on investments in programs and practices to assist students likely to drop out of school. The second is the Expanded Learning Time Initiative that we are developing with Massachusetts 2020. This new program would provide financial incentives for state and local expanded learning time pilot programs in order to spur education innovation and improve student achievement.

The Center for American Progress, with its partner the Institute for America’s Future, has also documented the challenges of our weak public education system and presented a blueprint for change in its August 2005 report Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for A Stronger Nation. Other recent reports, such as “America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future” from the Education Testing Service document even more starkly the wrong direction the United States is now going in the production of a well-prepared work force. It predicts a 5 percent decline in the literacy and numeracy of the working-age population by 2030—a decline that threatens our economic future unless drastic measures are instituted to reverse the trend.

Trenchant critiques and policy proposals such as these, alongside the report from the Commission on No Child Left Behind and the forthcoming report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Center for American Progress and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, echo calls for fundamental changes to the U.S. education system by concerned parents across our country. Congress must recognize the common good implicit in these specific policy proposals and the more general cries for education reform from voters.

To speak with Cynthia Brown about NCLB reform or the forthcoming report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce please contact:

For TV, Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy 202.682.1611 or sgibbons@americanprogress.org
For radio
, Theo LeCompte, Media Strategy Manager 202.741.6268 or tlecompte@americanprogress.org
For print
, Trevor Kincaid, Deputy Press Secretary 202.741.6273 or tkincaid@americanprogress.org
For web
, Erin Lindsay, Online Marketing Manager 202.741.6397 or elindsay@americanprogress.org

To attend the release of the new report, Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness, and the event discussing the research and policy recommendations, please go to our Events Page or contact the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi (immigration, race and ethnicity)
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org