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Evaluating 'No Child Left Behind' | The Nation

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Evaluating 'No Child Left Behind'

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How to (Really) Leave No Child Behind

About the Author

Linda Darling-Hammond
Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University. Her most recent book is The...

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The new version of the federal education law would further entrench the problems besetting schools that serve poor and minority children.

With the nation's public education system under siege, the need for qualified teachers who are committed to creating exciting and empowering schools is more urgent than ever.

There are hundreds of proposals for tweaking NCLB, but a substantial paradigm shift is required if our education system is to support powerful learning for all students. The Forum on Educational Accountability, a group of more than 100 education and civil rights organizations--including the National Urban League, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, as well as the associations representing teachers, administrators and school boards--has argued that "the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement."

How might this be done? A new paradigm for national education policy should be guided by dual commitments to support meaningful learning on the part of students, teachers and schools; and to pay off the educational debt, making it possible for all students to benefit from more productive schools.

A new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) should start by helping states develop world-class standards, curriculums and assessments and to use them for improving teaching. Returning to the more productive approach of President Clinton's Goals 2000 initiative, the federal government should assist states in developing systems for evaluating student progress that are performance based--including assessments like essays, research papers and science experiments that are embedded in the curriculum and scored by teachers using common criteria--leveraging intellectually ambitious learning and providing information that continuously improves teaching.

School progress should also be measured in a more comprehensive manner--including such factors as student progress and continuation, graduation and classroom performance on tasks beyond multiple-choice tests--and gains should be assessed by how individual students improve over time. To eliminate the statistical gantlet that penalizes schools serving the most diverse populations, the AYP system should be replaced with a continuous improvement model. While continuing to report test scores by race and class, schools should be judged on whether students make progress on multiple measures of achievement, including those that assess higher-order thinking and understanding, and insure appropriate assessment for special-education students and English-language learners. And "opportunity to learn" standards specifying the provision of adequate materials, facilities and teachers should accompany assessments of student learning, creating benchmarks for the pursuit of equity.

The new ESEA must finally address the deep and tenacious educational debt that holds our nation's future in hock and insure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities and quality teachers. Federal education funding to states should be tied to each state's movement toward equitable access to education resources. Furthermore, the obvious truth--that schools alone are not responsible for student achievement--should propel attention to programs that will provide adequate healthcare and nutrition, safe and secure housing, and healthy communities for children.

Major investments must be made in the ability of schools to hire and support well-prepared teachers and leaders. While NCLB sets an expectation for hiring qualified teachers, it does not include supports to make this possible. Federal leadership in developing an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers is needed. Just as it has helped provide an adequate supply of physicians for more than forty years, it can provide training for those who prepare in specialties for which there is a shortage and agree to locate in underserved areas.

A Marshall Plan for Teaching could insure that all students are taught by well-qualified teachers within the next five years through a federal policy that (1) recruits new teachers using service scholarships that underwrite their preparation for high-need fields and locations and adds incentives for expert veteran teachers to teach in high-need schools; (2) strengthens teachers' preparation through support for professional development schools, like teaching hospitals, which offer top-quality urban teacher residencies to candidates who will stay in high-need districts; and (3) improves teacher retention and effectiveness by insuring that novices have mentoring support during their early years, when 30 percent of them drop out.

For an annual cost of $3 billion, or less than one week in Iraq, the nation could underwrite the high-quality preparation of 40,000 teachers annually--enough to fill all the vacancies taken by unprepared teachers each year; seed 100 top-quality urban-teacher-education programs and improve the capacity of all programs to prepare teachers who can teach diverse learners well; insure mentors for every new teacher hired each year; and provide incentives to bring expert teachers into high-need schools by improving salaries and working conditions.

Students will not learn at higher levels without the benefit of good teaching, a strong curriculum and adequate resources. Merely adopting tests and punishments will not create genuine accountability. In fact, adopting punitive sanctions without investments increases the likelihood that the most vulnerable students will be more severely victimized by a system not organized to support their learning. A policy agenda that leverages equitable resources and invests strategically in high-quality teaching would support real accountability--that is, accountability to children and parents for providing the conditions under which students can be expected to acquire the skills they need to succeed.

The forum continues with responses from sociologist and author Pedro Noguera, longtime educator and National Urban League vice president Velma L. Cobb and senior NYU scholar and veteran school principal Deborah Meier.

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