The good, bad and ugly about a law that affects every public school by Dan Weissmannphoto by Frank Pinc Students and parents use computers to learn more about inventors and inventions during an open house at Lincoln School in River Forest.
Following up on a campaign promise to run a country that would "leave no child behind," President Bush signed a law in January 2002 that is sending tremors throughout the public school system—from the wealthiest districts on the North Shore to the poorest schools in the inner city. At its most basic, the "No Child Left Behind" law uses a carrot-and-stick approach to improve schools: It promises new money for schools in exchange for imposing new requirements on them. The goal is to get all kids up to speed. Schools that don't make the grade face sanctions. The name of the law is bandied about so regularly that it threatens to become a cliche, but the full implications of the law are just now becoming apparent to school administrators. As schools get ready for their second full school year of living with No Child Left Behind, here's a crash course in what the law is shaping up to mean. A year and a half in, the stick is looking a lot more substantial than the carrot.
Follow the money what's new U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige boasted in February that President Bush's budget proposal gave education $2.8 billion—a bigger dollar increase than any other domestic federal agency—on top of a larger increase for the prior budget year. (Paige's claim excludes, of course, the increase in the defense budget. With the bill for Gulf War II at $30 billion and growing, the increase there dwarfs education.)
the good With state governments facing tight budgets, any new money is good news. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich managed to raise spending on education by $330 million for next year, but only by making painful cuts elsewhere—and by using $2.4 billion in one-time budget shortcuts, according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. The $330 million was an overall increase that doesn't translate to a net gain for all districts. State funding formulas shifted money away from wealthier districts and toward needier ones, so many suburban districts saw their fortunes shift for the worse, despite the statewide increase.
the bad While $2.8 billion sounds like a lot of money—and it is—only about a third of it went to programs in schools that serve the poorest kids. Even after the increase, federal spending still accounts for only 10 percent of all spending on public schools. And just two programs—Head Start and school lunches—account for a big enough chunk that if you took them away, the federal share of education spending would drop to just 6 percent.
the ugly The new money falls far short of what it would take to actually meet the law's goals—getting all children up to speed. In May, researcher William Mathis pulled together studies from 10 different states of the costs of meeting No Child Left Behind targets. Based on those studies, Mathis concluded that a conservative estimate is that states would have to spend 20 to 35 percent more on education. (Illinois wasn't one of the states studied, but nearby Indiana and Wisconsin were. According to school finance experts Augenblick & Meyers, Indiana would need to spend 31 percent more—not counting the cost of extra programs for special education students or kids in poverty.)
Testing, testing, testing what's new There's more testing on the way. By spring of 2006, all students in grades three through eight will have to take state tests in reading and math. (Currently, only students in grades three, five and eight take state tests in those subjects. That will continue for the next two years.)
the good More tests means keeping closer track of kids' performance and it can give teachers, principals and the rest of us more information about how to make schools better.
the bad The information we get from tests is only as good as the tests themselves, and some critics charge that standardized, multiple-choice tests aren't very good. A Massachusetts-based nonprofit called the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as Fairtest, strongly opposes the testing requirements in No Child Left Behind. The Fairtest Web site makes the case this way: "In a high quality education, students conduct science experiments, solve real-world math problems, write research papers, read novels and stories and analyze them, make oral presentations, evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of fields, and apply their learning to new and ill-defined situations. Standardized tests are poor tools for evaluating these important kinds of learning."
the ugly This is a tough debate. No Child Left Behind assumes that some knowledge about what students are learning is better than no knowledge about it, which seems pretty straightforward. But the opponents of standardized testing argue that something could actually be worse than nothing: If schools narrow their curriculum until it is little more than a simple test-prep scheme in the hope of improving test scores, then students are cheated. Meanwhile, the more complex and thoughtful measures that Fairtest recommends aren't on policymakers' radar screens.
Most schools will fail what's new Schools and districts that don't make enough progress toward the goal of getting all kids up to standards by 2014 face a variety of sanctions. Low-performing schools have to give parents the choice to transfer to a better-performing school in the district. The school also may have to pay for supplementary services, such as tutoring, for students who stay. Over the long haul, schools that don't improve could be shut down or taken over by the state. Illinois already has a "watch list" with similar sanctions, which the state is adapting to conform with the new federal rules.
the good Right now, this provision doesn't affect very many schools. Last year, the state identified only 53 schools outside of Chicago that had to offer choice, and another 50 schools offered it in the city. Lists for next year are due out Aug. 1.
the bad Expect the number of failing schools to rise dramatically. In fact, there's a good chance your child's school will land on the list at some point, no matter how good you think it is. As standards ratchet up over the 12-year course of the law, it will get harder and harder for schools to meet their yearly goals. The goal is to get all kids up to speed by spring 2014, and there probably aren't any schools that consistently do that now. So it's possible that, at some point before 2013, most schools will be labeled "failing." In June, the Illinois State Board of Education said that schools in which 40 percent of kids are meeting or beating state goals in reading and math are in the clear. That's well below the current statewide average of around 60 percent of kids making the grade. By 2008, the state's interpretation of the federal law will require that at least 62.5 percent of kids meet or beat standards, and the numbers go up from there.
the ugly So far, the school choice program doesn't seem to work. That's because many districts in Illinois are too small to offer real choice to parents looking for a higher-performing school for their children. A lot of elementary-school districts, for example, have just one middle school; if that one is "failing," where are kids supposed to go? That's what happened when Zion's sole middle school was designated a choice school last year. Theoretically, kids could go to a school in another district, but the other district doesn't have to take them. In bigger districts, there's still a catch: Districts with one or more lousy schools tend to have mostly lousy schools, so the "choice" may be between the nearest crummy school and a slightly less crummy school that's farther away. Even then, there may not be enough space to accommodate students who want to switch. Not many Chicago parents requested transfers last year—and a lot of those who did got turned down for lack of space at the schools they wanted.
No child left uncounted what's new This is the most revolutionary part of "No Child Left Behind." Schools don't simply have to do a good job on average; the new law requires them to track how well they do with various "subgroups." Those subgroups include kids who have traditionally gone uncounted or slipped through the cracks: kids with disabilities, kids whose first language isn't English, kids who aren't white, kids who are poor. This requirement already has embarrassed some of the state's best-performing school districts. When the first numbers under No Child Left Behind were reported in the fall, they showed huge performance gaps between white students and minority students in wealthy districts such as Naperville, Barrington, Oak Park and Hinsdale. Failing to do right by kids in the different subgroups can mean failing to make "adequate yearly progress" toward the law's overall goals, which can mean getting set up for sanctions.
the good This is reason to celebrate for the families of students in those subgroups: Their kids will finally get the attention they deserve.
the bad Parents whose kids have been doing well—particularly parents of gifted kids—worry that schools will shunt resources away from their kids in an attempt to bring everybody else up to speed. Rima Binder, president of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says gifted kids "are left behind" by the law, because their progress as a subgroup is not tracked. And, she notes, this year, all Illinois state funding for gifted was cut in last-minute budget decisions.
the ugly Once you start taking the subgroups into account, the state is already behind—way behind. Remember how, on average, the state gets 60 percent of kids to proficiency on all its tests? Well, that's the average. But when you start digging in the subgroups, things get a lot murkier. Among third-grade students who are "economically disadvantaged," for instance, the state barely gets to the current baseline level of 40 percent in reading. And among the largest group of students with disabilities, only 31 percent score at proficient levels. And don't forget, these are moving targets, going up soon. Qualified teachers what's new In two years, all teachers in core academic subjects (including the arts and foreign languages) will have to be "highly qualified." That means they'll need at least a bachelor's degree, a teaching certificate and some indication they know their stuff in the subject they're teaching (such as having majored in it in college, having a graduate degree in it, or passing a state test). Newly hired teachers who work in programs funded by certain federal grants are already subject to these rules. And teachers aides have requirements, too, such as a two-year associates degree.
the good This is kind of obvious. I mean, who wouldn't want their kids' teachers to know their stuff?
the bad There's little in the way of a federal stick to prod schools to action. Schools are required to let parents know when their child is being taught by a teacher who isn't "highly qualified," but the feds don't have a mechanism of their own to force schools to remedy the situation. However, if parents complain to the Illinois State Board of Education, the state might withhold federal funds that it distributes until the problem is resolved.
the ugly Some districts have no problem attracting highly qualified teachers now. They're the ones with the money—and the property tax base that will ensure they will continue to have the money, even if they lose federal cash. "Northwest suburban districts have very high salary schedules," says Robert Willis, superintendent of the Des Plaines elementary school district. "We don't have a problem identifying teachers that meet all the requirements that we need." Other districts, he acknowledges, may have a harder time. "I imagine that will cause some real problems for other districts that may not be able to offer the salaries or fringe benefits," he says, "and I imagine it's going to be a substantial problem."Dan Weissmann, a Chicago freelance writer, spent 11 years writing about Chicago's public schools for Catalyst, an independent news-magazine about the city school system.