Overhaul 'No Child Left Behind' now

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Although NCLB has failed, the administration may be in no hurry for Congress to overhaul it: Congress might replace the administration’s waiver policies. Yet, to put our thousands of persistently low-achieving public schools on an effective path to improvement, it’s essential that Congress do just that.

To turn around such schools, principals, teachers, staff, parents and students typically need to profoundly change their expectations, beliefs and practices - the whole school culture. Instituting such changes in complex organizations is difficult. Most low-achieving schools currently lack the necessary knowledge, skills and supporting resources to turn themselves around. Simply pressuring schools - as NCLB does through its Adequate Yearly Progress, 100 percent “proficiency”/ 2014, and escalating sanctions accountability requirements - does not give them the guidance and help they need.

Waivers relieve approved states of those misconceived NCLB accountability requirements. But they do not cure NCLB’s fundamental defect - relying on high-stakes testing as the central strategy for school improvement and accountability. Though adopting some different policies, the waivers still rely on high-stakes testing as their central strategy. They require states to annually test all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set annual objectives for school improvement that consist mostly of raising standardized test scores, and intervene in, or reward, schools based chiefly on those scores.

Moreover, the waivers mandate subjecting all teachers and principals to personnel evaluations in which students’ standardized test scores are “a significant factor.”  However, Schochet, Chiang and other researchers have shown that standardized student tests are not reliable for evaluating teachers.  Notwithstanding unreliability, Florida already uses these scores as 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations.  In 2014, scores will apply to firing teachers.  

Such reliance on high-stakes testing causes serious harms. It perverts raising test scores into an end in itself, rather than developing the students’ high-level thinking skills, understanding and knowledge America requires. It pressures teachers to teach to the test and narrow the curriculum. It drives good teachers out of public schools, undermines remaining teachers’ morale and undercuts the public’s trust in public education. 

Instead, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently called NCLB, needs to redirect NCLB/waiver strategy from high-stakes testing to helping low-achieving schools improve. Much is already known about what works. Successful school turnarounds typically adopt common practices on five common elements: leadership, instructional improvement, curriculum, school climate, and parent/community involvement and support. This process is exemplified by “Hancock” Elementary School, Chicago, described by Bryk and others.

Common practices include developing a vision, gaining stakeholder buy-in, distributing turnaround leadership, building coherent teaching practices and peer collaboration. A description of common elements and practices, and supporting research, is contained in Ratner and Neill, “Common Elements of Successful School Turnarounds: Research and Experience” (2010).

What Congress needs to do is help states, districts and schools build the capacity to implement the common elements and practices, and then hold them accountable for doing so. This includes: Fund teacher preparation programs providing at least one year closely supervised clinical training. Establish a national school leadership academy to train experienced principals to lead turnarounds. Require federally-funded “turnaround” schools to implement the common elements/practices. Require all low-achieving schools to publicly report representative statistical indicators on the extent of common practice implementation. Support pilot states creating school quality review teams to independently evaluate schools’ needs and recommend school-specific improvements. And financially help state education departments to build their staffs’ knowledge and skills to assist turnarounds.    

Concurrently, Congress needs to preserve NCLB’s requirement to report state assessment results disaggregated for racial/ethnic minority, low income, English language learner and student with disability subgroups. This is essential so the public can hold individual schools accountable for educating these critical groups.  

Congress is already five plus years late in reauthorizing ESEA. To guide our low-achieving schools to successful transformation, Congress needs to retake responsibility for making national education policy from the Executive branch. 

In essence, Congress needs to fundamentally shift NCLB/waiver’s central strategy from high-stakes testing to helping schools improve. It needs to focus the nation on what works.  As difficult as it may be, Congress needs to act now, before millions more students are left behind. 

Ratner is executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools.