No Child gets left behind

State governments undercut hallmark Bush law

File Photo

File Photo

Nevada was never all that crazy about “No Child Left Behind,” the principal contribution of the George W. Bush administration to education.

For one thing, the state already had an accountability program in place. Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County, the Republican floor leader of the Nevada Senate, was its architect, and it was tailored to the state’s schools. It had to be adjusted to bring it into compliance with the federal law. School districts around the state made that point many times. An explanation of No Child on the Washoe County School District website read, “It institutes a new, nationwide system of accountability similar to the one already in place in Nevada” (emphasis added).

But there was more than that to the disenchantment. The results often seemed to locals to be faintly absurd, as when every school in Carson City failed under the law—and then eight out of 10 passed the next year. The Carson superintendent said No Child had worthy goals, “but the people who put it together must never have been in a classroom.”

Or there was the time Reno High School failed because it fell short on two out of 45 benchmarks (“Schools left behind,” RN&R, Sept. 16, 2004). The school has been known for decades as a crown jewel among Washoe schools and its failure raised more questions about No Child than about Reno High.

When schools fall behind, states and school districts are supposed to provide help. But they don’t have the cash, and the federal money that is available for the purpose is well below what is needed. Critics of the law had said all along that No Child was underfunded.

There were wide criticisms, particularly from parents, that teachers were having to teach to the tests. The criticisms made little difference—the trend continued to grow.

And school officials said, in the long run, there was no way they could win. As target goals were reached and then increased, the better a school did, the worse a school did.

“As those standards have gone up, the challenge that you have with [No Child] and federal accountability is, eventually you get to a point where the standards get to 100 percent and—given the nature of the world—that means every school now fails,” Utah superintendent of schools Larry Shumway said at a state school board meeting this month. “It would be wrong to label every school as failing. There are some fabulous things going on.”

Nevada state superintendent Keith Rheault said the problem of schools scoring worse as they get better is a problem in keeping No Child credible. “If the public looks at that and sees every school in the country is on a need-to-improve list, it will mean something is wrong.”

In addition, with heavy political pressure to meet the target goals, scandals have occurred around the nation over official—not student—cheating. And the inflexibility of a one-size-fits-all law made it difficult for different states to adjust accountability to local circumstances.

Washoe superintendent Heath Morrison said No Child is not set up to adapt to local situations. “In California the size of a [testing] sub-group is 100 kids,” he said. “In Maryland, it’s five.”

Morrison also gets exasperated by No Child’s moving targets: “And oh, by the way, this target’s getting higher. … And, oh, by the way, it’s not just, ‘Did every kid got up in math and reading?’ but they have to go up in every indicator.”

“The current system is fundamentally unfair,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

So it was no surprise when the Washoe County School Board voted to seek a waiver from the law’s requirements. Just as surprising was that there is such a thing as waivers under No Child.

They are an innovation of the Obama administration, which is also skeptical of No Child. The Democratic Party nationally has long been critical of the Bush program, so naturally when the party gained power, Democrats in Congress did nothing to get rid of it.

Then this year, the Obama administration—when faced with a revolt by states against the program—tried to accommodate them by finding a graceful way to let them off the hook. Waivers were invented, though it is uncertain whether they are legal.

The revolt was real, and it wasn’t coming from the traditional liberal states like Massachusetts and California.

Earlier this year, Montana school superintendent Denise Juneau surveyed the consequences if, as provided under the law, target goals were raised again on the state. Under the schedule, grade level in reading would rise from 83 percent to 92 percent, in math from 68 percent to 84 percent. She found that of the state’s 821 public schools, the number failing would rise to 383 from 225.

She shot off a letter to Secretary Duncan. “[W]e need some alleviation of the strict across-the-board, one-size-fits-all, absolute bar of 100 percent proficiency on state assessments,” Juneau wrote. “You understand that the unrealistic 100 percent goal undermines the work and morale of students and educators and the public’s confidence in schools.”

She also organized school officials from 10 small states to fight the law.

Secretary Duncan provided a waiver to Montana. As a result, other states started lining up for waivers. But Duncan’s not handing them out like cookies, either. Kansas and Arkansas have been rejected while Duncan figures out exactly what should fall under waivers.

But it may not matter. Enough states are now revolting against No Child that some state officials hope it will be brought down by their actions. “The current federal law has taken Idaho as far as it can,” wrote Idaho school superintendent Thomas Luna. Then South Dakota education secretary told Duncan that unless changes are made in No Child, “we believe our accountability system, as it currently stands, would inappropriately label schools as failing.”

These are not states generally thought of as hotbeds of radicalism.

However, Duncan’s waivers may just increase state agitation. According to Education Week, waivers will be like the law itself—arbitrary and inflexible. “The waiver plan will be an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it package—no a la carte picking-and-choosing allowed. In exchange for a waiver from the 2014 deadline and more funding flexibility, states would have to adopt college- or career-ready standards, propose their own differentiated accountability systems, and adopt teacher evaluation systems based in part on student growth on state tests.”

Most of Nevada 680 schools—55 percent—failed under No Child in the latest report card. The previous year most schools passed. In Clark County, two thirds of the schools have failed. That has led some to say Clark is dragging the rest of the state down, which is a little like saying an ocean liner is dragging the tugboat that tows it from its berth. Clark County is most of the state. It is now on a federal education “watch list.”

Nevada, along with Kansas, New Jersey, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Georgia, will likely be among those seeking waivers. Nevada state superintendent Keith Rheault has said that being designated as inadequate under No Child “stigmatizes” a school, which can make its problems worse.

Last week, Utah’s Shumway told the New York Times that the states will do what Democrats in Congress did not do. “Pretty soon all the schools will be failing in America, and at that point the law becomes meaningless. States are going to sit and watch federal accountability implode. We’re seeing the end of an era.”