Overhaul Flunks Out
Johanna Neuman, Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2005
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In his State of
the Union address in January, President Bush hailed the progress
of his No Child Left Behind Act in the nation's elementary
schools and called on lawmakers to extend the program to high
"Standards are higher, test scores are on the rise and we're
closing the achievement gap for minority students," Bush said of
primary schools. "Now we must demand better results from our
high schools so every high school diploma is a ticket to
Bush's proposal stirred opposition on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats were eager to criticize the administration for what
they said was a failure to provide adequate funds to carry out
the law. Conservative Republicans vowed to fight what they saw
as further federal usurpation of local school control.
But as children head back to school eight months later,
combatants have put down their arms. As things turned out, they
had nothing to fight against.
Legislation to make the president's words a reality was never
introduced. The House held some hearings on the issue, but the
Senate did not. And the proposed mechanism to pay the
$1.5-billion price tag for extending No Child Left Behind to
high schools — eliminating vocational education and a program to
help low-income students — was rejected by Congress.
"The president's idea was dead on arrival," said Robert
Schaeffer, longtime public education director of the National
Center for Fair and Open Testing. "Now it is well beyond rigor
Publicly, administration officials insist their commitment has
not flagged to extend No Child Left Behind's system of academic
standards and testing through 12th grade.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings continues to talk about
it. The president sometimes includes a plug for it in his
speeches. And some officials, as well as some outside experts,
say the idea could get a new lease on life when the original law
comes up for congressional reauthorization in 2007.
Still, there has been no White House push for a second phase of
education overhaul comparable to its campaign for private
investment accounts in Social Security. And Spellings, in an
interview in Los Angeles on Monday with reporters and editors at
The Times, acknowledged that the administration had a long way
to go in selling its idea to Congress.
"I see lots of support for it in the states," she said. "I think
smart governors know, all governors know, that if you don't have
an educated workforce, you're not going to have a strong and
thriving state economy."
She acknowledged resistance in Congress and suggested the
administration was counting on business leaders and local
education officials to apply the pressure needed for a high
"It's really more of a grass-roots approach than a top-down
approach," she said.
Even with presidential backing, most experts agree that it would
be more difficult to bring about changes in the way U.S. high
schools operate than it was in elementary schools.
"High school reform is really hard," said Susan Traiman,
director of education for the Business Roundtable, an
organization of corporate leaders who recently issued a call to
improve the nation's high schools. "The experience in the reform
movement is that it takes hold most easily in elementary
The reasons are myriad.
For one thing, said Tom Loveless, an education specialist at the
Brookings Institution, bolstering academic standards would clash
with the social, athletic and other elements of high school that
are important to many students and their parents. It's "a
cultural thing," he said.
"Kids in high school want to spend time on sports, and there's a
huge percentage who work part time," Loveless said. Given that
most parents seem to want their children's high school years to
be filled with proms and football games and socializing, he
added, "I don't see any groundswell of support" for extending No
Child Left Behind to high schools.
Also, many elementary school officials found the act's
requirements expensive and difficult to satisfy, especially in
the early days when Washington was unwilling to grant exemptions
or ease the rules. The experiences of grade schools made many
high school educators leery of the whole idea.
"Accountability is a good thing, but educators need to be given
the resources," said Michelle White, spokeswoman for the
National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. She said many
elementary schools incurred substantial costs when they were
forced to meet federal standards.
For instance, the law allowed parents of children in
low-performing schools to transfer to high-performing campuses
after a certain amount of time, and White said some substandard
school districts in Alaska had to pay for helicopters to
transport pupils to the better schools.
Also, since elementary schools were penalized if students failed
to achieve high enough scores on standardized tests, schools
with large numbers of learning-disabled students had
Initially, schools were not allowed to bypass the standard tests
and use other ways of measuring academic progress for more than
1% of their "special needs" children. But White said the
administration and Education Department were "now more willing
to grant some flexibility."
In addition, the federal purse strings are less powerful at high
schools. Once Title I, the main federal entitlement that funds
education, reaches the states, about 85% of it goes to
elementary schools, 10% to middle schools and 5% — about $635
million — to high schools.
"That's a drop in the bucket," White said.
Some think the funding issue is a red herring. The real sticking
point, said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the
House education reform subcommittee, is that conservative
Republicans, besieged by worried school districts and educators,
have grown weary of dictating policy.
"A lot of conservatives, particularly in the House, have
expressed disdain for expanding" No Child Left Behind, Castle
said, "because of the interference with state and local
Finally, there is considerable debate about whether a culture of
testing helps or hurts education, and whether standardized tests
dilute the joy of learning and instead reduce it to drilling for
a specific set of facts.
The No Child Left Behind Act was the signature achievement of
Bush's first term. Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush,
and his predecessor, President Clinton, made efforts to enact
federally mandated tests. Schaeffer said a coalition of diverse
groups, including Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the NAACP,
had rallied to defeat earlier overhaul efforts.
Few dispute that improvements in the country's high schools,
where reading and math scores have been flat since the 1970s,
A recent study by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project
found that although 75% of white students finished high school,
53% of Latinos and 50% of blacks graduated.
If the administration is pushing for an overhaul quietly, others
are more outspoken.
Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in a speech
in May to the Economic Club of Washington, said leaders should
work with local school systems to transform high schools and to
demand that all students graduate from high school prepared for
college, work and the community.
And the National Governors Assn. has made overhauling high
schools a key initiative. To date, 47 governors and 12 national
organizations have signed an agreement that recommends measures
for assessing high school achievement.
As private and local efforts move forward, their success could
blunt the political will in Congress to intervene.
"It will take political salesmanship," Castle said. "The
administration really has to make the decision to get this
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