'No Child' Goals Out of Reach
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, September 16, 2003
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As the bad news about America's public schools has poured in,
with large numbers falling short of state targets demanded by
the new federal education law, local officials are blaming the
White House and Congress for asking the impossible. How could
rational leaders demand, in just 12 years, that 100 percent of
students do well enough on standardized tests to be rated
proficient in reading and math?
The No Child Left Behind law is "out of touch with reality,"
said Ron Wimmer, school superintendent in Olathe, Kan., and many
of his counterparts across the country agree.
But in Washington, lawmakers who committed this alleged assault
on common sense say they are sure they did the right thing. More
than a year since the law took effect, they acknowledge that
many people think it is much too ambitious to insist that all
students meet state standards by 2014, and that all teachers be
deemed "highly qualified" by 2006. Still, they ask, what are the
Assume for a moment that Congress had decided instead to set a
goal of 95 percent of all students being proficient in reading
and math, said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the
House Education and Workforce Committee. "Okay, so let's throw 5
percent of the kids overboard," he said. "It wouldn't be my kid
or your kid, but it will be somebody's child. Don't they count?"
The same goes for making certain that every teacher is highly
qualified with proper credentials and a college degree, said
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democratic member of
the same committee who joined with Boehner in writing the law,
which is a linchpin of the Bush administration's domestic
"We are talking about goals for the nation," Miller said. It
can't be, "Well, you have to have a highly qualified teacher . .
. unless you are poor or unless you are a minority. That
Rarely has such a gulf existed between the authors of a major
piece of federal legislation and its executors -- in this case,
the 90,000 public schools across the country. Many teachers and
principals say they see no way that they can make the required
"adequate yearly progress" toward such daunting goals, given the
deadlines. For one thing, the law requires steady progress
within categories of students who are often the hardest to
prepare for tests: special education students, recent immigrants
with limited English skills and children living in poverty.
At the same time, the legislators and federal education
authorities who wrote the law say they see no other way to make
progress, because previous attempts to fix struggling schools
with a more modest approach did not work well.
It has been 38 years since Congress first declared that it
wanted no child overlooked by passing Title I of the 1965
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first major grant of
federal dollars to low-income schools. "By the time I got here
in 1975, everyone was dipping their hands into the Title I
money," Miller said. "Suburban districts wanted that federal
money, so it got diluted. Then we said, 'Well, we want these
standards,' and then this president [George W. Bush] said, 'I
want to reconcentrate the money, as Lyndon Johnson had
suggested, and focus on the poorest children and
poorest-performing schools.' "
This was a radical departure, Miller said, but one that
Democrats and Republicans accepted. In the 2000 presidential
campaign, Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore supported the
concepts of regular testing and higher standards, already in
place in many states, that became central to the No Child Left
Critics of the law, such as George Mason University educational
psychologist Gerald W. Bracey, are less hard on its goals than
on what they say is a severe lack of money. For the 2004 fiscal
year, congressional Democrats want the $32 billion initially
authorized for No Child Left Behind, rather than the $22.6
billion Bush has requested.
"If you want to try to get poor kids to high proficiency, you
take the JFK man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade approach and fund the
program adequately," Bracey said. "To succeed, this task needs
an $87 billion supplemental appropriation more than the
rebuilding of Iraq needs an $87 billion supplemental
The issue is made more confusing because each state will have
its own definition of proficiency. Before No Child Left Behind,
when educators used the word "proficient," they often meant that
level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the
federal exam given to a sampling of students to get a sense of
national achievement levels. Only 31 percent of fourth-graders
tested proficient or above on the latest NAEP reading test, in
2002, and only 26 percent were proficient or above on the math
test given in 2000.
But under No Child Left Behind, each state sets its own
standards, which are turning out to be much lower than that of
the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In Virginia
last year, for instance, 72 percent of third-graders passed the
Standards of Learning test -- the state's measure of proficiency
-- in English, and 80 percent passed the state math test. Still,
many Virginia schools have not made adequately yearly progress
under the federal law, because their low-income and special
education students have not been that successful.
"If expectations are high, then [students] will thrive. If
expectations are low, then they will come to believe they are
hopeless causes and they will surrender," said U.S. Education
Secretary Roderick R. Paige.
"We are taking 12 years to get there -- that is important to
stress -- and the goals we are asking them to reach are
community-set," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who with Sen.
Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was among the law's main authors.
Last week, Gregg and Kennedy together fought off an attempt by
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to delay the law's effects --
Durbin's proposal failed by a vote of 67 to 28 -- though
Kennedy, Miller and most congressional Democrats deride Bush and
the Republicans for not giving the nation's schools more money.
The law needs more funds to succeed, Miller agreed, but he is
not very sympathetic with the complaints from local education
officials about too-ambitious goals.
"I look at the angst in the school districts trying to deal with
it, the principals trying to deal with it, and I say, 'This is
great.' These people are thinking about how to improve the
achievement of these children," he said.
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