WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Congress sets about the difficult task of revamping the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the six-year-old education law once considered a hallmark of President Bush's presidency, several school superintendents are calling for wholesale changes to the bill.
Speaking at the American Association of School Administrators' annual Legislative Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., on April 20, members of Public Schools for Tomorrow (PSFT), a group of current and former school administrators in favor of educational reform, said NCLB, though well-intentioned, has failed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students and has not delivered on its promise of measurable academic gains for all children.
"In fact, we are convinced that NCLB is harming the education of many of the children it is intended to help," wrote the group in a statement.
Like many of the law's critics, members of PSFT--led by Columbia Teachers College President Tom Sobol--say NCLB places too great an emphasis on standardized testing, while doing little to measure students' progress
effectively over time.
Rather than continue along a path they deem destructive, reformers have identified six core problems with the law and, in each case, have offered potential remedies.
Their suggestions come about two months after a high-profile bipartisan commission co-chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a Republican, who served for 14 years as the governor of Wisconsin, and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, released a report outlining some 75 recommendations for lawmakers to consider as they reform the legislation.
Though many Washington insiders believe it's unlikely Congress will vote on a new education bill before the 2008 presidential election, members of PSFT say now is the time for educators in favor of change to voice their
"The goal really is to marshal a bully pulpit of superintendents everywhere to make sure NCLB represents what it means to be an effective citizen," said PSFT member Judith Johnson, superintendent of the Peekskill City Schools in Peekskill, N.Y.
Among the problems identified by the group are standards, testing, teachers and teaching, sanctions for struggling schools, community involvement, and funding.
"We believe in standards, but the existing system does not work," declares the PSFT statement handed out during the April 20 event. "In many places, standards are not aligned with testing and accountability, thus frustrating their purpose. Further, standards vary from state to state, making comparisons useless."
To better align existing federal testing and accountability rules with state benchmarks, the group suggests that a commission be established to craft a set of national standards for learning. Set by leaders representing various educational groups, with participation from state and local governments, these national standards "should be broad and challenging enough to encourage a wide variety of curricular and instructional practice," PSFT says.
Unlike past proposals, the group says, this is not something the federal government should have a hand in. "Nothing in what we say suggests that this should be turned over to the federal government to create these things," said Robert Rochelle, superintendent of the Ossining Union Free School District in Ossining, N.Y.
Testing is another prominent aspect of the law the superintendents' group takes issue with.
"Too much testing is corrupting the educational process and is driving the curriculum downward, especially in middle and high school grades," it said.
Rather than rely almost exclusively on students' standardized test scores, as is the case with NCLB, these superintendents suggest that states employ new and different means of assessing educational progress, looking at students' success on a longitudinal basis as well as through grade-by-grade comparisons.
An outspoken critic of the law--and the federal Education Department in general--writer and independent researcher Gerald Bracey told attendees during a morning presentation that there is little scientific evidence to
suggest students' performance on standardized test scores is an effective indicator of future success.
Though U.S. students often test in the middle of the pack when compared with students in other industrialized nations on standardized tests for such core subjects as reading and mathematics, he says, a host of other factors contributes to a student's ability to succeed in life--few of which can be accurately predicted by existing forms of academic measurement.
"A lot of what we value in this society is difficult to measure in the form of a standardized test," noted Bracey, who said students in other countries often are not encouraged to develop certain intangible traits such as creativity, diplomacy, and entrepreneurship--even though these attributes are known to be just as, if not more, critical to their ability to live and work in the 21st century.
Bracey chided U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for encouraging American educators to teach to the test. He said much of what sets U.S. schools apart from their counterparts in other nations is the inquisitive nature of their classrooms. It is teachers encouraging students to speak out, to voice their opinions and engage in a form of two-way dialogue that fosters higher-order thinking, he said, adding: "Taking a test is almost the exact opposite of asking a question."
As a supporter of NCLB and one of the legislation's founding architects, Danica Petroshius, senior vice president of Collaborative Communications Group in Washington and former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was scheduled to refute Bracey's argument that the law is ineffective. But a scheduling conflict reportedly kept her from presenting.
PSFT also criticized NCLB for failing to train and promote a larger number of high-quality instructors.
"The quality of students' achievement is closely related to the quality of their teachers, but we lack the number of well-trained teachers that we need, especially in difficult teaching situations," explained the group's report.
Despite an increased effort to train and retain high-quality teachers, critics say, schools must do more to ensure the best teachers are up to the challenge of working in America's toughest classrooms.
As part of its movement, PSFT is asking Congress to fund a nationwide campaign "to recruit, train, support, and retain" a larger crop of experienced, committed, high-impact instructors.
The group also came out strong against the law's current policy of leveling sanctions-- including withholding federal funds--on schools that fail to meet its stringent requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a controversial stipulation that sets national benchmarks for students in reading, math, and more recently, science.
"The sanctions for not achieving AYP are flawed and unfair … No serious person believes that all children will be proficient in reading and math by 2014," wrote the group in its outline.
Presenters went on to criticize the federal government for singling out and "embarrassing" struggling schools and said a better approach would be to revise AYP to reward schools for "substantial progress," as opposed to punishing them for perceived failures.
Whereas schools are the "chief instruments" of any student's formal education, PSFT said, local communities also have a responsibility to help students become better learners. As part of its reform effort, the group is encouraging schools to work with health and social services to better meet students' needs and, in turn, improve the mental and physical conditions under which they are expected to learn.
As a final condition of its report, PSFT says Congress should work to fund NCLB at the level originally intended. Since the law's inception in 2001,educators have criticized NCLB for saddling historically cash-strapped schools with what amounts to a bevy of unfunded mandates, arguing that the amount of money schools receive to implement NCLB programs still is billions of dollars less than what originally had been promised.
"Money alone will not reform the schools, but the schools will not be reformed without it," said the report.