Responses to Linda Darling-Hammond’s article in this issue on the Bush Administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
Linda Darling-Hammond makes it clear that there are many problems associated with NCLB that have undermined the benefits it was intended to deliver. That is certainly true, but it’s also important to emphasize that opposition to NCLB is not based on a desire to return to the past–to the time when it was possible for poorly educated students to graduate with meaningless diplomas or when many schools showed little interest or ability in promoting higher levels of learning and achievement for all students without regard to race, disability, language or background.
Despite its failings, two basic goals of NCLB remain important: Students should be educated under higher academic standards, and those responsible for educating them should be held accountable.
Few NCLB critics argue against higher academic standards. However, while it is easy to set the standards (actually, it has not been that easy in several states), it is far more important to insure that the standards and conditions under which students are educated are also raised. In pursuit of higher test scores, “failing” schools have enacted measures that have actually undermined the quality of education and social well-being of students. Schools and districts striving to “teach to the test” have eliminated or reduced access to art, music and even science if they are not covered on standardized tests. Some have eliminated field trips, recess and physical education. In many secondary schools, students have been required to enroll in test prep courses, some of which meet for nearly two hours a day. NCLB has done nothing to insure that students are taught in enriched learning environments, exposed to creative and effective teachers and given access to stimulating and rigorous curriculums.
In the area of accountability, NCLB has opted for the path of least resistance, holding accountable the most vulnerable (students) and the least protected (principals), but not other parties–elected officials, senior school administrators, teachers and parents. In cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston and now Los Angeles, mayors have demanded control over the public schools but mayoral control does not include specific accountability standards. What happens if schools don’t improve under their leadership? In a public debate, I asked the superintendent of a large urban district who was an advocate for high-stakes exams how many administrators would be fired if as many as 50 percent of his seniors were denied diplomas, as was expected the first year the exams were implemented. Puzzled, he responded, “Maybe a principal or two will have to go.” That June 6,000 students who would have graduated under previous standards were denied diplomas, and the same superintendent, the governor and the leading newspapers declared the results a victory for high standards. The fact that a third of those students were recent immigrants who were illiterate in English, another third were identified as learning disabled and the final third were students who came from high poverty districts long known for their failing schools didn’t seem to trouble any of the “standards” advocates.
Some of the leading advocates of NCLB have been liberal legislators (Ted Kennedy and George Miller were two of the leading sponsors of NCLB in the Senate and House) and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and MALDEF. These NCLB advocates have viewed the law as a tool to advance the interests of the underserved by insuring that educational standards are raised. But what they’ve generally failed to see is that the scope and purpose of NCLB would have to be broadened considerably to address the real needs of poor children and struggling schools. This would mean:
§ Responding to the nonacademic needs of poor children.If we want to insure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must insure that their basic needs are met. Students who are hungry should be fed, children who need coats in the winter should receive them and those who have been abused or neglected should have counseling and care. Expanding access to healthcare, preschool and affordable housing, and providing more generous parental leave policies should be included on the education reform agenda.
§ Holding state governments accountable for high standards in schools. Just as we do for the maintenance of highways, airports and the public water supply, we should insure that common standards are upheld at all public schools. Instead of labeling schools with letter grades, as Florida does, state governments should adopt standards to insure that all students attend schools staffed by qualified teachers and learn in safe, clean, well-maintained facilities.
§ Making schools more responsive to the parents and families they serve through systems of mutual accountability. To a large degree, schools in middle-class communities operate with a sense of accountability to the parents they serve. Affluent educated parents often have the ability to insist upon high-quality education for their children, while schools in poor communities rarely feel accountable to parents. One way to address this is to include parents on site councils and give them a say in decisions that affect the governance of the schools their children attend. Schools must also make the rights and responsibilities of parents clear and the expectations of all key parties–parents, teachers, students and administrators–explicit.
§ Involving teachers in mentoring and evaluating their peers. In too many school districts, teachers unions see their role largely as one of defending the rights only of teachers, even when they are incompetent and unfit for teaching. Rarely are teachers unions seen as advocates for improving conditions within schools (for students or teachers) or for upholding professional standards. In the small number of districts where teachers are included in the process of evaluating their peers, teaching standards have been raised and the number of teachers evaluated out of the profession has increased. Peer evaluation has also resulted in greater support for teachers in need. Unions must take the lead in removing incompetent teachers from classrooms as well as advocating for the rights of children and public education generally.
Velma L. Cobb
NCLB was unprecedented in its goal to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.” It won bipartisan support and had the backing of many civil rights organizations because it brought to the forefront issues not previously acknowledged, much less addressed. Under NCLB, data about students’ performance is disaggregated by race, ethnicity, language and class, exposing what many of us long knew: Poor children and children of color are not receiving the kind of education that will lead them to high academic performance. The law also requires that all children have access to a highly qualified teacher, the greatest in-school factor affecting student performance, according to research by Ron Ferguson at Harvard. Yes, NCLB has fallen short on its promise and potential, but recognizing its problems does not mean its goals are not worthy.
Still, those of us who were supportive of NCLB’s goals always knew there needed to be a larger conversation–a conversation on the opportunity to learn. Even in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, are we ready to talk about poverty? Are we ready to talk about race?
It is no small coincidence that poor schools are in poor neighborhoods. If we are to get serious about education reform for the twenty-first century, we must talk about community development. Only a full-empowerment agenda will address the unequal access to quality education. The National Urban League has identified workforce development, housing, prison reform, health and wellness, as well as education, as core areas to “empower communities and change lives.”
Darling-Hammond is correct that we must “invest.” We must invest in high-quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood education for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Children must enter school ready to take advantage of teaching and learning. We must address the growth and development of adolescents as well. NCLB did not deal with high schools, for the most part, but this nation’s high schools are in tremendous need of an overhaul. All young people need access to the structures, supports and opportunities that yield positive youth outcomes. The reauthorization of NCLB should provide for these needed changes, raising standards for teaching while also expanding learning in nonschool hours and engaging parents and guardians. More money will be needed to assist states and districts to achieve better outcomes. States and districts also need to take responsibility for redirecting existing resources to areas showing the greatest results. I agree with Darling-Hammond that a “continuous improvement model” is needed rather than the current system of using AYP (adequate yearly progress) statistics.
“It takes an extraordinary and unrealistic optimism to look at the internal problems our country faces and avoid the conclusion that it is in danger of coming apart at the seams.” Whitney Young Jr. said these words in 1970, and they ring true today, especially in education. Whether we make strategic changes to NCLB or abolish it completely, we are in danger of coming apart at the seams if we do not address the larger issues of poverty and race in which access to quality education is embedded.
Linda Darling-Hammond has laid out how misguided, if well intentioned, the current version of Title I/ESEA is (the means, since 1965, by which we have tried to balance the fiscal inequities facing low-income kids) and how we can change direction. I’d add just a few points.
There are two important areas in which we could work toward narrowing the achievement test gap aside from directly through schooling: narrow the health gap (as Richard Rothstein argues) and narrow the income gap. Both paths would positively affect test scores as well as real learning. Since NCLB has been in effect, we have instead widened such gaps. Although we claim to be worried about our poor international standing on tests, we might better worry about the fact that we rank nearly last in measures of childcare. These data lead me to be somewhat suspicious about our will to upgrade educational outcomes.
The continuous focus on which kids fail to live up to our ideals–higher test scores–reinforces an ugly aspect of our ever fiercer competitive culture. The idea that the poor, especially the poor of color, are pulling down our system is repeated over and over. The idea of equal human potential is a new and fragile idea; I wonder what all of this pounding away at the so-called deficiencies of “those kids” is doing to this late-twentieth-century concept. Until we pay off “the educational debt” Darling-Hammond describes, we will be forced to keep living with it and with the assumptions that spawned it: our underlying race- and class-biased interpretation of “intelligence.”
Finally, a reminder: Democracy was invented as a system of accountability. Our form of democracy rests on a balance of power among different judging bodies. Our schools, in contrast, now rely on only a few bare tools of measurement–mainly those based on fill-in-the-bubble answers to test questions. We wouldn’t give out driver’s licenses based on such a flimsy criterion as a paper-and-pencil test. We require a road test. But we have settled for far less when it comes to educating all our children well. (And in “we” I include some of my political friends, who are often worse than my usual foes in their admiration for test scores.) Schools are, first and foremost, where we turn to reinforce the intellectual and moral rationale for democracy. If the people are unwise, as Jefferson noted, we must better educate their discretion, not disarm our democracy. Yet, of late, when it comes to schooling–a process designed specifically to educate on behalf of democracy–we seem to have turned our backs on the power of human judgment.