Inside the No
Child Left Behind Law
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, Tuesday, January 28,
For more articles visit
Like many people, I am having difficulty understanding the new
federal No Child Left Behind Law. It helps me to have
well-informed advocates debate issues that confuse me. So two
experts have kindly accepted my invitation to argue about the
law in this column.
I will start it off with a question for Andrew J. Rotherham,
director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the
Progressive Policy Institute in Washington and a former White
House education adviser in the Clinton administration. Gerald
W. Bracey, a Fairfax, Va.-based educational psychologist and
research columnist for the educational issues magazine Phi
Delta Kappan, will respond and will eventually get the last
Please let me know if you think there are parts of the bill
and this debate that need further examination. I hope to write
several columns about the law this year, and I need to know
what parts of it merit the closest attention.
JAY: There is much mystery and confusion surrounding the
"adequate yearly progress" provisions of No Child Left Behind
(NCLB). Some people say they are written in such a way that
most schools in the country will have to be put on the "needs
improvement" list, particularly if this assessment system
survives long enough to approach the point where every student
must test proficient. Won't that confuse teachers, parents and
students and cause them to reject the program as a bloody meat
cleaver, rather than a vigorous motivator of better schools?
ANDY: First, let's consider what Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
is, and is not. It is a set of parameters that requires states
to measure school performance, primarily teaching reading and
mathematics. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states must
develop a system to ensure not only that overall student
achievement is improving but that achievement of low-income
and minority students is improving too.
The reason for this is that overall student achievement can
often paint a misleading picture. For example, the average
performance of American students on international comparisons
masks high performance by affluent white students and at the
same time obscures the, on average, lower performance of
minority students. The same thing is true in many states and
The AYP provisions will introduce much needed transparency and
help ensure that schools are focusing on all students, not
only those that are easy to educate. AYP specifically requires
states to develop a system to measure the progress of students
and schools and a corresponding strategy to address problems
and close the achievement gap. The student proficiency targets
are determined by the states, the states choose which tests to
use, and states have considerable flexibility about how to use
test scores to measure progress.
In addition, there are provisions and allowances to ensure
that test scores are used in a statistically sound way. Test
scores can be aggregated over several years and schools should
not be penalized if there are too few students in a particular
sub-group to yield reliable information or if a single
subgroup fails to meet a particular target but makes progress
nonetheless. At a minimum, schools must miss their AYP targets
for at least two years before any action is taken and longer
before more serious consequences come into play.
Remember, this is about adequate progress toward having all
students meet state standards for proficiency. Schools are not
required to meet some uniform bar for all students in the next
If a state is thoughtful about how it implements AYP and does
so with an eye toward measuring progress, intervening where
necessary, and most importantly supporting struggling schools
and students, then the AYP process can help. What AYP is not
is a one-size fits all federal measurement scheme.
In fact, contrary to many media accounts, which schools are
deemed as in need of improvement is a state-level issue based
on a state's standards and AYP plan. The states report this
information to Washington. Claims that federal officials will
be going into states and declaring individual schools failures
are simply not true. Prior to this law states were required to
have an AYP plan although they could pretty much do as they
pleased. As a result there was considerable variance about how
much attention states paid to low-performing demographic
groups and schools.
So, requiring AYP is not new but the changes in NCLB are an
effort to rectify existing shortcomings. Nowhere in the law is
the term failure used and that is not the intent. The goal is
to identify schools and subgroups of students who are not
achieving and to help them.
Listening to some of the commentary about this law, one would
be excused for believing that there are no low-performing
schools. The fact is that while we have a public education
system that Americans can take pride in, it is not uniformly
strong. Schools serving a lot of low-income and minority
students too often are not getting the job done. That's why we
have such a troubling achievement gap that manifests itself in
a whole host of problems for low-income and minority
Many parents will not even notice the AYP system in their
state because many public schools are doing a pretty good job.
To the extent that high performing public schools get
identified as needing improvement it will most likely be
because one group of students in the school, for example
minority students or English-language learners, are not making
progress. That doesn't necessarily mean that their school has
an overall problem but it does signal a problem for a specific
group of youngsters.
It's incumbent upon those criticizing AYP to show why
identifying and remedying such problems is a bad idea.
Unfortunately, if the leadership of a particular state wants
to make a political point by identifying as many schools as
possible for improvement, it is entirely possible to do that
by designing an inflexible AYP plan. That's the worst-case
scenario, but in our decentralized education system, where we
place a premium on localized governance decisions, it's a risk
that can only be avoided by doing nothing at all.
The best-case scenario, sadly overlooked in most of the
hysteria about this law, is that for the first time national
education policy includes transparent accountability
provisions for low-income and minority students and that their
educational needs will finally get the attention they deserve.
That's why proposals for changing AYP predated this new law.
Democratic representatives George Miller and Dale Kildee
proposed similar changes several years ago and senators like
Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and Jeff Bingaman have been beating
this drum for some time as well. In addition, civil rights
groups like the Education Trust and Citizens Commission for
Civil Rights are staunch supporters because of the benefits
for minority students.
JERRY: Andy says that "claims that federal officials will be
going into states and declaring individual schools failures
are simply not true." But they already have. In its first,
preliminary, pass, the U.S. Department of Education compiled
state-by-state lists of failing schools (the official phrase
might be, "needs improvement," but the media and most people
translated this to "failing schools").
Declaring an entire school a failure using only a single crude
instrument--a test--is fundamentally unsound.
The lists revealed the procedure's irrationality. They labeled
Michigan the national dunce with 1,500 failures and Arkansas
the national genius with zero. Does anyone believe that this
result is meaningful? Silly-on-their-face results like these
will lead to reliance on NAEP [a federal test of academic
achievement]--which NCLB makes mandatory for all
states--removing the pretense that this is a state-level
Once states begin their NCLB testing, different states will
have different failure rates, but most schools in most states
will fail. A January 13, 2003, article in the Los Angeles
Times put the figure for The Golden State at 98%. The
Congressional Research Service, hardly hysterical hand
wringers, estimated the national figure at 90 percent.
Andy emphasizes using AYP to identify poorly served poor and
minority children, but if 90% of all schools flunk, the
measurement is at best meaningless. In fact, AYP is a
mean-spirited device to make public schools look bad and,
thus, to elicit more calls for vouchers and privatization.
Andy says the more serious consequences of AYP failure kick in
only after two years. One can only wonder what he considers
serious. Schools that fail to make AYP in any one year must
offer students the option to transfer elsewhere. The
Department has awarded millions in grants to publicize this
option. Regulations forbid a school to say, "We're full," and
refuse transfers. It must increase class size, bring in
portables, or build new classrooms--and hire new teachers (who
must be, according to NCLB, 'highly qualified'). The schools
can refuse transfer students only if they would so crowd the
building as to violate fire or health codes. The district must
pay for all this 'capacity building,' as the Department calls
it, making NCLB, in a time of terrible budgetary crises, yet
another unfunded mandate.
With a 90 percent failure rate, we could, theoretically, end
up with 100 percent of our students attending schools
currently attended by 10 percent of our students. (No one has
yet dealt with how the transfers affect the schools. If they
are low-scoring students, the sending school's scores
automatically rise while the AYP of the receiving school is
put at risk).
Although Andy asserts that safeguards prevent reporting of
statistically unreliable subgroup data, even school-level
scores exhibit great volatility from year to year, most of
which is not associated with the quality of instruction.
Subgroups will no doubt show much more volatility. Rather than
identifying good and bad schools, AYP will arbitrarily
identify lucky and unlucky schools.
Reporting scores by ethnicity and socio-economic status is a
good idea. Attaching sanctions to the results is not. The
sanctions will be arbitrary, capricious and unfair and won't
ANDY: Jerry makes several false assertions. First, the lists
of low-performing schools he refers to are based on
information that states report to the U.S. Department of
Education based on their standards, assessments and existing
AYP provisions. The states decide what schools need
improvement, not the feds. There is an enormous difference
between this and the idea that the feds are picking schools
out for improvement.
These state lists pre-date the Bush administration, and during
his second term President Clinton issued an executive order to
get more help for these schools.
Concerning the disparities among states and the oft-cited
Michigan-Arkansas example, that's precisely the reason for the
changes to AYP. Arkansas is most likely underreporting and
Michigan may well be overreporting. Neither scenario is good
With regard to the Congressional Research Service report,
Jerry omitted several relevant facts. The CRS report is
heavily qualified and clearly states that the analysis is not
generalizable, beyond the three states they looked at, to the
nation as a whole. Jerry's ascribing that data nationwide is
not supported by the study. Specifically, the researchers only
had complete demographic information to base their estimates
on for one of three states they examined, only had two years
of test score data (states can average up to three years), and
could not take into account all the variances in the ways that
states can design these plans.
Most importantly, the CRS researchers are excellent analysts
but at the end of the day they were modeling potential results
rather than analyzing actual results. So while their work
offers useful information for policymakers, what will be more
valuable during the next few years is the actual experience of
states as they implement the law.
Hardly anyone argues that some revision might not be
necessary, but it's simply too soon to tell and wild
speculation is irresponsible. Jerry also misrepresents the AYP
provisions with regard to the number of years a school must
fail to meet AYP before any consequences come to bear. He
writes that, "Schools that fail to make AYP in any one year
must offer students the option to transfer elsewhere." That is
simply not what the law says. A school must fail to meet an
AYP target for two consecutive years before any action is
taken and the first year of identification entails minimal
consequences, namely offering public school choice and
developing a plan for improvement. Schools can also appeal
these determinations if there is evidence that they are in
It's rhetorically catchy but untrue to say that schools must
be held accountable for a single year's test scores. As with
many components of this law, the public school choice
provisions will require creative thinking and moving past
tired orthodoxies. Public charter schools, more intra- and
inter-district public school choice options,and other
strategies will be needed.
Let's not lose sight of what's important here, giving
students, particularly disadvantaged students, access to high
quality public education options. Some of the loudest
champions for the public school choice provisions were civil
rights groups like the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights.
These are not anti-public school groups; they want what is
best for kids.
JERRY: The "new" AYP might need two years of data, but
transfers are happening now when the new law is only one year
old. Reading Andy's description of the reform process, one
finds a remote, abstract view of schools from afar.
Andy conveys the idea that a kid is a kid is a kid and a
school is a school is a school. They are not. And requiring
school choice is not a "minimal" consequence. Schools are
communities. They are organized around the needs of that
community. People in the community become vested in their
school. Hence the adage, it is easier to move a cemetery than
to close a school. Indeed, the January 16, 2003, edition of
The Washington Post carries a story that speaks to schools and
communities and schools as communities. Some people want one
Arlington school, now a magnet school for the entire county,
restored to a neighborhood school. Apparently this is a
When the transfer aspect of NCLB came up on a listserv, one
commentator reported that the receiving school in her town
does not have a free breakfast program, an in-school medical
clinic, remedial reading, study halls, support for ESL
students, etc. The teachers at the receiving school have been
successful at teaching academically successful kids, but have
no experience with low-scoring kids. The receiving school is
described as "scrambling."
One wonders if those transferring to the receiving school will
be perceived as "intruders" into the community and how this
will in turn affect the perceptions of those who transfer. The
process is a recipe for chaos. And all this for less money
than the law might cost the states to implement.
The U. S. Department of Education pays much lip service to
"scientifically-based research" and the use of proven
education techniques. There is no research on, much less any
proven benefit of having kids transfer from school to school
based on the test scores of one school. Former assistant
secretary Susan B. Neuman declared "our children are not
laboratory rats." NCLB makes them precisely that. At most,
this should have been tried out on a small scale, not crammed
down the nation's throat totally untested, higgledy-piggledy
(and, despite Andy's claims that it's a state issue, it is a
program imposed by the federal government).
The CRS study might lack generalizability, but failure
estimates from elsewhere are all consonant with the CRS
results. I already mentioned the 98 percent figure in
California. The state department in Washington says 97
percent; editors at Phi Delta Kappan say in Indiana it's 80
percent, which is a relief since in neighboring Illinois it's
90 percent. A legislator in Arizona was quoted saying
"virtually all." In North Carolina, characterized by many as a
state making much progress, 51 percent of the schools that the
state had singled out as making exemplary progress were
labeled failures under NCLB.
Andy so far has also ignored the technical problems I
mentioned with using test scores to determine failure and the
irresponsibility of using only test scores for this
ANDY: The main thrust of Jerry's comments shed important light
on the hidden nature of many education debates. Jerry is
talking mainly about consequences for the system and for
schools rather than about kids. It's precisely because kids
are not all the same that we need more options and
customization in the public sector, including more choice
among public schools for parents.
As for the specifics of why students are being offered a right
to transfer now, again Jerry is playing fast and loose with
the facts. Many of the provisions of this law, including
weaker AYP provisions, were part of the previous law. Schools
that were already identified as needing improvement (some that
have been on their states low-performing list for years) are
now required to offer public school choice under the new law.
That doesn't mean it's based on a single year test score as
Jerry tries to suggest, but rather that parents are being
offered public options based on multiple years of
low-performance by some schools.
Jerry's account suggests that these school transfers are
mandatory and that parents are being forced to switch schools.
All the NCLB public school choice provisions stipulate is that
if a state identifies a school as needing improvement, then
parents must be offered the right to transfer to other public
schools. It's not required. If parents are satisfied with the
school they likely won't go. But why is it not okay to offer
other public options in this situation? Jerry provides one
answer: that poor kids going into other schools can cause
"chaos" or "scrambling." That's an odd argument on the heels
of jibes about an "abstract" view of kids and schools.
Like many I have some concerns about the Bush administration's
interpretation of "scientifically valid research;" however,
there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that we
should do a better job economically integrating our public
schools. Public school choice is a key strategy to accomplish
that. For the best summation of the evidence, Rick Kahlenberg
wrote an excellent book about it a few years ago called "All
Public school choice and charter schools are not a panacea but
the transparency they bring to school finance, particularly
when coupled with the data from state accountability systems,
is one of the most promising ways to drive fiscal equity and
improve educational quality for poor youngsters. In addition,
those of us who argue against vouchers because private schools
can pick and choose among students cannot simultaneously say
that public schools should do the same when it comes to poor
Returning briefly to AYP, these provisions are based in large
part, but not solely, on test scores. While test scores are
not an ideal measure, they're the best at hand right now.
Again, we simply don't know how the AYP numbers will play out
because states are in the process of designing new systems.
It's worth taking the wildest claims with a grain of salt and
other states are coming up with more plausible estimates.
Nevertheless, it's pointless to sit here and toss out numbers,
we'll be able to have a much more informed debate in a few
years. Remember the horrific forecasts that greeted welfare
reform and any other substantial social policy shift. Right
now it's best to heed the counsel of the wide range of
analysts, researchers, and scholars who, while often
disagreeing on the exact structure of state-level
accountability systems, see their benefits for poor and
minority students far outweighing their costs.
JERRY: Reading Andy's comments, three words come to mind:
glib, unresponsive and disingenuous.
For instance, I have raised technical issues about tests (I
could have raised many more) that compel the conclusion tests
are too weak to bear the weight they're being asked to take
on. Andy's glib, indifferent comment: "While test scores are
not an ideal measure, they're the best at hand right now." The
seriousness of the problems I raise and the unresponsiveness
of his "reply" taken together suggest that he doesn't know
enough about the technology of testing to actually understand
what the problems are.
Andy somehow manages to tie NCLB to Rick Kahlenberg's ideas
for integrating communities not by race but economically.
That's amazing. [In a private communication, there would be an
expletive between "That's" and "amazing."] I happen to think
Rick's proposals are unworkable in the large, but they are at
least laudable. But Rick's examples of communities that manage
economic integration involve the communities doing it "All
together now" as in the title of his book. It's a community
effort (and they are quite atypical communities). There is
nothing communal or shared about NCLB. It's an imposed,
underfunded federal mandate (an analysis in Vermont indicates
that the Green Mountain State will get $51.6 million from NCLB
and spend $158 million implementing it. Off hand, I can't see
how a program that costs three dollars for every one it gives
is going to do much for anyone).
Andy says, "We have systematically failed to educate minority
students." Well, then, why do we need a huge testing program
for virtually all students? NCLB is a punitive testing
program, not an educational program. We already know where the
bulk of the achievement problems are. Report test scores by
subgroup to reveal the few other problematic areas. (Andy
wondered if "Jerry had even one good thing to say about it" [NCLB].
Disaggregation by subgroup. That's the one good thing). Put
resources where they're needed, and make them real resources,
not the picayune drops-in-a-bucket available from NCLB.
Of course, if your real goal is to destroy the public
education system, then NCLB in its present form serves you
ANDY: The only issue that Jerry has raised thus far with
regard to test scores is the volatility of year-to-year scores
because of random error. Here's a very basic primer on testing
to hopefully help readers understand a little of what this
debate is about.
When a test is given to students it yields information. There
is a true score, the true performance on the particular test,
which we can never exactly know. That's because what we really
see is an observed score, made up of the true score along with
systemic error and random error.
Systemic error is error endemic to the test instrument. For
example imagine a car that is out of alignment and always
pulls left, that's a systemic error. Random error is caused by
non-systemic factors that nonetheless obscure the true score.
Imagine a car with a broken axle that pulls wildly in
different directions. For students, random error is caused by
a whole host of factors, distractions in and out of the
classroom, occurrences at the school, or even a fire truck
racing by during the test.
While (hopefully) addressing systemic error, quality tests
cannot, obviously, eliminate random error each time a student
takes the test. Among other reasons, this is why it is a bad
idea to base decisions about individual students (or schools)
on a single test score and why the law does not require this.
It's precisely to mitigate randomness associated with
single-test scores and small subgroups of students that the
bill gives states flexibility about designing their AYP
system. States can average test scores over multiple years,
across grades, and ensure that subgroups are large enough to
yield sound information. Schools can also appeal an AYP
determination they believe is incorrect. Thus, rather than an
arbitrary measure, in a well-designed AYP system,
determinations about school performance that carry
consequences will be based on a convergence of evidence.
This is worth explaining, not in response to Jerry's juvenile
gambit, but rather because it is important to understand what
AYP is and is not. Standardized tests are far from a perfect
way to measure school performance and a major concern about
this bill is the amount of testing that it requires in the
face of an uncertain capacity to deliver it in a high quality
way. However, let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the
Broadly speaking, the public seems to get this too because the
sort of accountability plans states will develop enjoy
consistent support as polls and surveys have shown for some
It's worth returning to the discussion the Kahlenberg book. As
I read Jerry's earlier statement he argues that there is no
evidence that allowing students to transfer to better schools
will enhance educational opportunity and in fact seems to
argue that it might not be good for them. This is ludicrous.
More often than not, the students in question will be
low-income students transferring to more affluent schools, and
there is evidence this will help their education.
I too question the viability of Kahlenberg's remedies but his
book is one of the most exhaustive and accessible discussions
of evidence about socioeconomic status and education. It's
worth mentioning that allowing parents to choose schools
within the public system can actually enhance rather than
decrease the sense of community that Jerry and I agree is
important for good schools.
There is more to NCLB than just the provisions we've mentioned
thus far. The new law included provisions to better target
funding to the poorest students, thanks to the tireless work
of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La). Doing this might seem obvious,
but politics make it very hard to get education funding to
low-income communities. It also includes more flexibility for
local educators about spending federal education dollars.
Finally, as part of AYP it has more concrete provisions about
helping low-performing schools improve. The bill does contain
some nuisances and silly provisions about social issues and
there are some items, for example the supplemental services
provisions, which I think are quite problematic as currently
written. However, legislation of this size requires a lot of
compromises on Capitol Hill. That's the nature of
policymaking. Overall, though, this bill is a step forward.
JERRY: Andy's quasi-primer on classical psychometrics only
goes to prove that he knows very little about testing.
Volatility due to "random error" is not the issue. The
research finds school-level tests scores are volatile, but
NCLB requires reports by smaller groups--ethnic groups,
socio-economic status, special education category and for
English Language Learners. Hence, much more volatile. To
dismiss this out of hand as Andy does is irresponsible.
More importantly, rising test scores do not indicate
increasing achievement. Harvard's Dan Koretz and colleagues,
in a paper presented to the American Educational Research
Association in 1991, found that increased scores from one test
did not transfer to another. Less formally, the same thing was
seen in Prince George's County in the 1980s. A new
superintendent promised soaring test scores. They soared.
Until, that is, the state of Maryland switched to a new test
and then they plummeted to the same low levels they started
from (the superintendent, John Murphy, had, luckily for him,
taken a job in North Carolina).
Andy says, "More often than not, the students in question will
be low-income students transferring to more affluent schools,
and there is evidence this will help their education." He does
not actually cite any evidence because there is none. Rick
Kahlenberg's evidence comes overwhelmingly from studies of
intact neighborhoods where the kids live, not where students
are transferring from low-income to high-income schools and
then returning home after school. The evidence from
desegregation studies is mixed and most of the positive
studies come from kids who volunteered to be bused to schools
that volunteered to receive them.
The data from voucher studies, also using volunteer schools,
show vouchers to be ineffective. When Cecilia Rouse at
Princeton did find a positive effect in mathematics (but not
reading) in Milwaukee, she concluded it was likely due to the
small classes the voucher kids transferred into, not vouchers.
To assert that this research is relevant to NCLB, where
students will be transferring into schools that are forced to
accept them, is ludicrous and hardly "scientifically based."
These receiving schools might not have any programs to assist
In almost all cases, the funds from NCLB will not follow the
transferring students to the new school, giving them
additional burdens but no additional money. Since the
transferring students will be, by law, the lowest scoring
students, this is another unfunded problem for the receiving
Finally, where will they go? A December 2002 Education Week
article observed that Los Angeles has space for 145,000 high
school students, but has 165,000 students and will have
200,000 by 2005. Where will they go? And who will pay? If the
sending school gets out of the "failing" category, it no
longer has to pay for their transportation, making NCLB an
unfunded mandate on poverty-stricken parents or, more likely,
yo-yoing the kid back to his original school.
The NCLB act declares that education should be scientific. It
mentions "scientifically based research" 110 times. Yet it has
zero scientific basis for what it prescribes. Nothing that it
forces on the states has been tried. It does turn our kids
into lab rats. That makes it both incredibly hypocritical and
In her November 2002 Phi Delta Kappan column, Anne Lewis, a
strong supporter of standards-based education, observed that
"the criticism [of NCLB] stems from a realization that current
standardized, high-stakes testing narrows the whole enterprise
of education and could halt the development of truly
significant improvements in teaching and learning." She called
NCLB "a crazy horse that is galloping at full speed toward a
cliff." True, too true.
ANDY: Jerry is proving that he's more adept at hurling insults
than actually putting forward an argument against this law.
Again, states have flexibility to design AYP to take into
account the problems of small subgroups by aggregating scores
across different grades and schools to make subgroups large
enough for statistical reliability. The law does not mandate
subgroup sizes, only that no children are overlooked. And
again, because of volatility, states should not use small
subgroups or single-year scores for accountability and are not
required to under the law.
These are not differences of opinion. Jerry's assertions are
not based on what the law actually requires and the law
provides flexibility for states to address the issues he has
raised. His misrepresentations may speak to the poor job the
Bush administration has done explaining their only bipartisan
domestic policy initiative to date, but are nonetheless
By ignoring sound principles states can design AYP systems
that wreak havoc on public schools (as they could under the
previous law), but the important point is that NCLB does not
Jerry does make one salient point about public school choice,
the issue of funding. Offering real public school choice to
disadvantaged students is costly and several federal
initiatives designed to help remain unfunded or under-funded.
With regard to offering poor students the right to transfer to
better public schools, I suspect few parents, in for example
Washington, would share Jerry's concern about all the services
they would lose if they were allowed to enroll their children
in schools in Arlington, Montgomery or Fairfax counties.
More specifically, Jerry's claim that research drawn from
school desegregation is not relevant here because the students
were volunteers shows the extent to which he inadvertently or
deliberately mischaracterizes these issues. The transfer
provisions in NCLB are voluntary; the students transferring
will by definition be volunteers. While there is not a
definitive study that the specific public school choice
provisions in NCLB will improve student learning, it can be
inferred from the research.
As Kahlenberg himself writes, "Fortunately a wealth of data
suggest that middle-class children are not, in fact, hurt by
the presence of disadvantaged classmates, even as
disadvantaged classmates benefit from such an environment, so
long as the schools remain predominantly middle class and as
long as some ability grouping is employed. Several sources of
data bear on this question."
Although there are certainly good high-poverty schools, if
Jerry is denying that socioeconomic status of schoolmates
impacts educational attainment,that assertion runs counter to
the research. By invoking research about vouchers in this
debate Jerry seems to be at least implicitly arguing that it
is hopeless for poor students and we should make sure they
stay in their schools, presumably lest they cause "chaos"
There are problems with the notion of scientifically valid
research as articulated in NCLB although Jerry
mischaracterizes them. To the extent the law encourages
randomized research and rigorous research methodology, that's
for the good. Studies with random assignment and control
groups are the strongest to base policy on. But, research in
education is not identical to research in fields like medicine
because some kinds of studies are impossible for ethical and
logistical reasons. However, there is established methodology
that should guide researchers regardless of whether they are
undertaking a random assignment study or a few case studies.
Adherence to those principles is the positive thrust behind
NCLB's emphasis on valid research.
Problems arise, however, when political leaders use concerns
about validity to politicize research and some actions by the
Bush Administration (beyond just education) are causing
I think that Jerry and I agree that vouchers or other "silver
bullets" are not solutions to our educational challenges, but
his refusal to offer alternatives to NCLB (which unfortunately
is not unique among critics of NCLB) by default bolsters the
case for it. Our public schools are not in an overall state of
failure as some claim, but there is a dire and immediate
problem in one subset of them and for certain demographic
groups of students. Measurement alone won't solve those
problems but it is a key component of comprehensively
To accept Jerry's overall argument against NCLB one must
accept that it is part of an effort to destroy the public
schools that the civil rights community and many prominent
Democrats are either willingly or unwittingly party to (along
with many states that already had NCLB-like policies). Those
are pretty fantastic claims. And, persistent
misrepresentations of the law notwithstanding, Jerry has
failed to produce evidence or analysis to support them.
This law is far from perfect, and is at present under funded,
but it is an important effort to address the inequities that
plague our educational system. Jerry's critique of it though
is sadly an apt analogy for much of this debate overall, a lot
of attacks, a lot of distortions, but not much attention to
real problems and progressive solutions for solving them.
JERRY: Andy again dismisses the problems of AYP saying we can
use rolling averages or averages across grades. Rolling
averages don't cut it. Consider data from 2003, 2004, 2005,
and 2006. We compare the average of 2003, 2004, and 2005 with
2004, 2005, and 2006. This is actually a comparison of two
years because the years 2004 and 2005 are a constant in both
averages. No increase in reliability here. And in any case,
the schools must be categorized as passing or failing each
year with attendant sanctions.
Averaging across grades is suspect because different tests are
used in different grades and they will not be equated (Steve
Dunbar, a respected psychometrician at the University of Iowa
says testing companies cannot possibly create high quality
tests under the law's timelines).
Whatever is used, the Council of Chief State School Officers,
a group not in opposition to NCLB, concludes that "a high
proportion of schools will likely not meet the new AYP
requirements within two or three school years" (the proportion
failing grows over time).
What is the use of a law the flunks almost everyone? What is
it if not mean spirited?
Andy states that "the transfer provisions in NCLB are
voluntary; the students transferring will by definition be
volunteers." Yes, the students transferring are volunteers,
but the schools receiving those students are not. And those
receiving schools receive only the kids--they do not receive
any additional funds to hire teachers, buy trailers or develop
programs. An unfunded mandate.
Andy quotes Rick Kahlenberg, but he casually overlooks the
fact that most of Kahlenberg's evidence is from intact
communities and where it is not, both the kids transferring
and the schools accepting them did so voluntarily. When the
schools are forced to accept students, the situation is
different: for instance, two thirds of the teachers at one
private Milwaukee school quit rather than try to cope with the
students who used publicly funded vouchers to attend their
Once NCLB's "supplementary services" provisions kick in and
the hordes of private companies descend on the schools we will
begin to see NCLB's true colors. And once the 100 percent
proficient requirement becomes defined as the impossible goal
of 100 percent proficient on NAEP assessments (which many
people, including me, think will happen), we will truly see
its true colors.
Bush put a voucher plan in his original proposal. Congress
stripped it because voucher referenda had suffered
overwhelming defeats in California and Michigan in the 2000
elections. But Bush is surrounded by voucher pushers.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige supports them. Under
Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok not only supports them,
but as secretary of education of Pennsylvania, he tried to get
a voucher law enacted. A key Hickok consultant is Nina
Shokraii Rees whom Hickok brought in from the
voucher-advocating Heritage Foundation. Rees has written
numerous articles in favor of vouchers. Finally, in this line
of argument, until his appointment, Hickok was very active in
the Education Leaders Council, a voucher promoting
organization. His good friend and executive director of the
Education Leaders Council is Lisa Graham Keegan, who, as an
Arizona legislator, wrote voucher laws for that state. So, as
the effects of NCLB become all too obvious, vouchers will be
on the way. And we will wave goodbye to Horace Mann's ideal of
the common school.