Are children still being left behind?

A status report on federal education law


Merry Mayer


The new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, will take over in Washington this month. She will preside over the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which continues to cause an uproar in many school districts that have failed to meet the tough new standards for all students.

According to the act, students must be tested each year to gage overall academic progress. This year, 47.5 percent of a school’s total student body must meet or exceed federal academic standards. Schools that fail to show sufficient gains for two years in a row must offer their students the choice of attending another school. By 2014, all students—100 percent—must meet the national standards.

Although it’s tough to disagree with the mom-and-apple-pie idea behind the law—that every child has a right to receive a quality education and not be left behind—critics say the law doesn’t work in practice.

Spellings, one of the principal authors of the legislation, is unlikely to want to make significant changes to the act even as complaints grow, experts say.

Consider the experience at the Walt Disney Magnet School. The elementary school was designated a “receiving school” under No Child Left Behind, which means it was to receive students who transferred from failing schools. Originally, the successful North Side school was assigned 60 struggling children—a number that threatened to overwhelm the school.

“I said, ‘whoa,’ ” says Principal Kathy Hagstrom, and the number was lowered to 42. Of that figure, 22 kids actually moved to Disney and only 18 stayed. But it still was a difficult transition for the high-performing school. “I didn’t know I was getting the poorest, lowest performing kids,” she says.

Hagstrom’s story emphasizes just one of the problems with the law signed by President Bush in 2002.

Because many districts will not have enough spots to accommodate all the children from a failing school, the federal law says priority should be given to “the lowest achieving children from low-income families.”

Fourteen of the 18 students who transferred into Disney came to the school with an Individualized Education Program, meaning they were special education students and already receiving extra services.

“Why not give me some of the better performing kids from the failing school? They would have probably [gotten] more out of [Disney],” says Hagstrom.

Not only is Hagstrom expected to work miracles with some of the most troubled children, Disney is no longer meeting the legally-mandated levels of “adequate yearly progress.” She says she can’t blame this on any of the new students because any incoming children are going to affect a school’s performance. Ironically, because the school no longer is meeting federal standards, these same low-performing, low-income children likely would be given the first choice of fleeing Disney for yet another school.

“Transferring a student who is so far behind is not going to turn around [a failing] school. It’s not a strategy to [improve] schools,” says Donald Feinstein, principal of the Chicago Academy, a neighborhood elementary school that also serves as a training ground for new teachers.

Goals are good “The intent of the law we love: Asking school districts to look at all their students,” says Ed Rafferty, superintendent of School District 54 in Schaumburg. “Unfortunately, the way it is being implemented is a problem.”

For schools and school districts to pass federal muster, they must show that all students—disabled, minority, poor and those for whom English isn’t spoken at home—are meeting state achievement standards.

These students are classified in “subgroups” and each state designates how many children constitute a subgroup. In Illinois, 40 is the minimum number of children in a subgroup. So a school with 39 special education students would not have enough students to count this group separately. But a school with just one more child in special education would.

“Disabled children are the biggest problem with the law,” says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. The law asks disabled and limited English-speaking children to perform at the same level as everyone else, he says.

Rafferty also worries that students in subgroups may be blamed if a schools doesn’t meet expectations.

“If you believe in a bell-shaped curve, it is unrealistic,” he says. “It’s not a fair starting point. We should expect them to reach the goal, but not at the same time,” Rafferty says.

The law does make one concession for these kids: One percent of the total school population may take an alternate assessment, says Jennings.

Uneven impact But this does not help schools such as Falconer Elementary on Chicago’s North Side. By most standards, Falconer is doing well. Although 92.7 percent of the students are poor and half don’t speak English fluently, 77 percent of the students meet or exceed the state standard in math and 55.6 percent meet or exceed the standard in reading.

But the school still was classified as failing the last two years because just one subgroup—disabled students—failed to meet reading standards. As a result, it will have to allow students to transfer next year.

The failure “casts aspersions on the whole school,” says Falconer Principal Jim Pawelski. “It gives parents the wrong idea [about the school].” 

It’s one of the contradictions of the No Child Left Behind law in practice: While Falconer is designated a failing school, it had a higher math score overall than 17 of the 20 Chicago public schools that were offered as transfer options this year. Moreover, eight of those schools didn’t do as well in reading as Falconer. Yet, parents may be offered these schools as “preferred” substitutes to Falconer.

What allowed the 20 schools to make adequate yearly progress when Falconer could not is evident when you break down their subgroups.

Of the 20 schools, only one had a population of disabled kids large enough to be a subgroup and none had a subgroup of kids not fluent in English.

In addition, some technical tweaks in the law make it even tougher for schools to make the grade under No Child Left Behind.  

“The way the law is prescribed, some really wonderful schools will be designated [as failing] for a technical reason such as only having 94 percent of their kids tested [rather than the required 95 percent], in exactly the same way as a school that has only 7 percent [of students] meeting standards,” says Xavier Botana, director of No Child Left Behind Accountability for the Chicago Public Schools.

There are more contradictions. “It is possible for a school district to have no schools on the state watch list, but be itself on the list,” says Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. Again, it has to do with the subgroups. No individual schools may have enough disabled students to make a subgroup, but the district as a whole might.

Avoiding ‘failure’ Despite all the contradictions, schools are under tremendous pressure to make adequate yearly progress. Just the mild stick of being labeled a failing school can make things unnecessarily difficult, say experts.

“It erodes public confidence unnecessarily, creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear and demoralizes the teachers and principal,” says Botana.

“But the punishments are draconian,” says Falconer’s Pawelski. “It reminds me of [that joke]: ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.’”

Offering students the chance to change schools may sound like a good idea, but it doesn’t always work.

First, there must be high-performing schools with space available for the students. Then there must be money to pay for the students’ transportation—cash that has to come out of a school district’s already tight budget. Most often, it means spending federal Title I money that is designated for aiding low-income students.

“That is why some districts are turning down the funds. They don’t have any money left [after busing],” says Rafferty. Refusing Title I money is one way to avoid sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, although schools still are required to test students to determine whether they are making adequate yearly progress.

Of the 21 elementary schools and five junior highs in Schaumburg’s District 54, three did not meet annual progress benchmarks. Rafferty says the district still is not facing sanctions that would allow students from low-performing schools to transfer, but he worries that he may someday have to spend on busing “all our Title I [funds] earmarked for additional reading support [for students].”

Unintended consequences Once sanctions begin, it can be more difficult for a school or district to help troubled students. Besides the additional busing costs, the tutoring required for the students left behind at the failing school will eat up even more of the district’s limited resources.

Of Chicago’s 566 schools, 353 are being sanctioned under the law. Since the district itself is listed as needing improvement, it can no longer provide tutoring services for its students, says Jennings. The city could have to pay an outside firm for tutoring services, increasing the costs considerably.

Even for those schools and districts that are making progress, the future is uncertain. Schools that fail to meet the standards five years in a row can be taken over by the state, restructured as a charter school or handed over to a private manager.

“We would need at least a year to plan and reopen the school,” says Botana. Yet, with nowhere to put the kids in the meantime, the district is expected to accomplish this “while the buses are running,” he says.

Few changes expected Although there are complaints coming from the states and local districts about No Child Left Behind policies, don’t expect to see major changes, says Jennings. With Bush re-elected and Republicans running Congress, they will not risk reopening the issue again for fear it will be killed altogether.

Instead, look for minor regulatory changes, he says. Disability groups are looking into providing a different standard for children with disabilities, Jennings says. And rural schools might get a break since they have trouble providing transfer options and meeting stringent teacher requirements.

But states shouldn’t expect more money. The last appropriation bill doesn’t even provide enough money to keep pace with inflation, says Jennings. The appropriation is less than President Bush asked for and even less than members of Congress originally wanted.

States also will tinker with factors under their control and ask government regulators for exemptions from parts of the law.

For example, Illinois has asked that school districts that have failed to make adequate yearly progress, including the Chicago Public Schools, be allowed to continue providing tutoring services at least until the end of this school year, says Becky Watts, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Illinois may also look at whether 40 is the right number for a subgroup to be considered, she says.

“Whatever we decide, it has to be the right thing for kids,” Watts says. 

Merry Mayer is a Chicago-based writer. She has two children.


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