'No Child Left Behind' Act Is Stifling State Innovations in Education

 

The seeds of the No Child Left Behind Act -- President George Bush's sprawling education reform initiative -- were planted decades ago, and not by the federal government. They were carefully sown by the states, cultivators in search of the best way to measure and improve student performance.

Many of the law's components took root in the early 1980s when states stopped tracking the "seat time" each student spent in school and started measuring what that student was learning. By the time NCLB deliberations began in 2001, nearly every state had developed its own method for gauging student achievement. They did so through research and experimentation. But the innovation stopped when No Child Left Behind came along. It had to stop. It was no longer allowed. Like a weed, NCLB has stifled the blossoming of states' ideas.

K-12 education historically has been a state responsibility and has been funded by state and local revenues. In this classic example of the tail wagging the dog, the federal government contributes less than 8 percent of the cost of K-12 education, less than $40 billion of the $500 billion expended nationwide. States that were once pioneers are now hostages of a one-size-fits-all education accountability system that brings the federal government into the day-to-day operations of public classrooms.

It doesn't have to be this way. Through the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan task force of state lawmakers just finished an exhaustive review of the law. They recommend 43 ways Congress and the administration can adjust it so that it makes sense for states, and, in turn, students. Many, if not most, of these recommendations propose more flexibility for states, because state legislators believe that the freedom to respond to their area's unique needs is the freedom to innovate.

The rigid and inaccurate yardstick that No Child Left Behind uses to measure student improvement was itself left behind by many states as they fine-tuned their accountability efforts. The federal measurement compares, for example, this year's fifth-graders to next year's fifth-graders. Many educators complain that it is not a valid way to evaluate student progress.

Some states, in the pre-NCLB days, developed better models. California, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia were using more sophisticated and accurate systems that gauged the growth of individual students, not just groups of students and entire schools. NCLB allows states to draft their own plans for meeting the goals of the law, and those plans are subject to federal approval. None of those states was allowed to continue using its own system under NCLB. The federal law undermined innovative approaches like these.

NCSL's Task Force on No Child Left Behind recommends that the federal government show true flexibility by approving state accountability plans that meet the spirit of the law, not just the letter. Washington, D.C., should not meddle in state processes but should focus instead on monitoring states' results in narrowing the achievement gap. All agree on the need to eliminate the achievement gap. The solution will not be found by abandoning the system of vibrant federalism that has served us so well.

More specific recommendations call on the federal government to give states leeway to: focus on the schools and students most in need; measure more than just standardized test scores; set their own proficiency goals and determine the sequence of consequences for schools that don't make adequate yearly progress. Currently schools that don't achieve their improvement targets must let students attend a different school before they receive tutoring at their current school. Often, that sequence doesn't make sense.

Other consequences for schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress can be harsh. For schools that fail several times, think of a federally mandated state takeover and staff replacement. It's no wonder states such as Michigan lowered academic standards and softened accountability systems that were in place before No Child Left Behind, rather than risk falling short of absolute federal benchmarks. States have learned to use accountability to diagnose problems and address them; the federal law uses accountability to punish. This is counterintuitive.

NCSL's task force recommends that Congress and the Bush administration reconsider the law's 100 percent proficiency goal. While that's certainly a laudable aim, under the current student proficiency measurement scheme, it is not statistically achievable. Not when disabled students who are permitted individualized education plans under civil rights law are expected to perform at grade level. Not when English learners in their third year in the country are expected to perform at grade level, regardless of their language and academic skills when they came into the United States. Not when the law expects perfection, but fails to acknowledge differences in schools and students.

And certainly not when there are consequences that actually divert money and energy from teaching. Principals and superintendents told NCSL's task force some schools that missed reading proficiency targets ended up losing reading specialists They had to use the money that paid those specialists' salaries to fund transportation to implement school choice.

The administrative costs of implementing the act are more than the federal government provides. And the true cost of the program is actually much more because complying with the law doesn't even begin to address the remediation costs of meeting proficiency targets. NCSL's task force also asks Congress and the administration to direct the Government Accountability Office to determine both the costs of compliance with NCLB and the costs of meeting proficiency targets.

States can elect not to participate in No Child Left Behind. They could forgo the federal funding and free themselves from the strings. But it's not that simple. Officials in Utah found that by not participating, they wouldn't just lose the $43 million in NCLB money, but also nearly twice that amount in other federal funding. No Child Left Behind dollars, also known as "Title 1 funds," are the basis for an important state funding formula. Not participating means a state has no related formula for Washington to figure funding levels for a host of other programs, including technology, safe and drug-free schools, literacy for parents and after-school programs. States have little choice in whether to participate in NCLB.

It's time to prune the law. State legislators have handed Congress and the administration the hedge clippers. We believe we know what education methods work best within our borders, and we look forward to serving, again, as test gardens of democracy.

Steve Saland is a Republican state senator from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He is co-chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' No Child Left Behind Task Force. He is a former president of the organization.

 
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