Taking measure of No Child Left Behind
According to a new Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans believe the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law has either harmed or had no effect on schools, compared withjust over a quarter who believe it has helped. And while most people approve of NCLB's goal of raising standardized test scores, few seem to support its methods. "Systematically, the public rejects every strategy in it," said Lowell Rose, director of the poll, which is jointly authored by Gallup and the Phi Delta Kappa teachers' association.
Other observers urged a more modest reading of the poll's findings. Indeed, 45 percent of respondents said they know very little about the bill, and of those who did report some knowledge, opinions were split: 42 percent reported a favorable impression, and 47 percent reported an unfavorable one.
Yet questions designed to gauge public support for NCLB strategies registered high opposition. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they did not think a "single test" could "provide a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement." Under No Child Left Behind, student performance on state-based assessment tests is a primary measure of a school'sannual progress ratings. And 81 percent of poll respondents said measurement tests should not just cover math and English but other subjects. No Child Left Behind requires only that the tests cover math and English.
Eighty-one percent of respondents also said they would prefer that NCLB measured progress according to individual student improvement; NCLB measures a school's achievement by making one test score the goal for all students and then measuring what percentage of them meets it. The poll respondents preferred the "growth model" approach, which would set individual test-score goals for every student, then base achievement on the number of students who meet them.
Some education specialists challenged the poll's findings, calling its wording biased. Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Foundation, pointed to the question about basing progress on a "single statewide test."That's a rigged question," he said. "Of course, a single test is not fair. The fact of the matter is multiple years of tests go into No Child Left Behind."
But critics agree the poll's overall results are troubling. "The American people are signaling their agreement with the underlying principles and goals of No Child Left Behind but are disgruntled with some of its features," Finn said. "They are probably not as disgruntled as the Gallup Poll suggests they are, but they are disgruntled."
The disapproval adds to a chorus of complaints. Teachers unions and other groups lament the bill's reliance on standardized tests. Cuts in the federal education budget and uneven federal enforcement have made implementation difficult, state administrators argue. And Howard P. McKeon, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said earlier this month that a key component of No Child Left Behind-guaranteed tutoring for children who attend poorly rated schools-is not readily accessible.
Frustration with the NCLB law grew at the end of the last school year, after almost every state failed to meet two major achievement deadlines set in the law. Doug Christensen, the Nebraska education commissioner, called No Child Left Behind a counterproductive "beauty contest." Even before the missed deadline, other state districts-and even some states-had filed lawsuits against the federal government charging the bill was an "unfunded mandate."
Last year, the Gallup Poll found nearly the same opinions on No Child Left Behind: The public liked its goals but disliked its methods. But this year, with NCLB slated for reauthorization in 2007, the poll's results will likely receive more attention. Already, a few groups have embraced the poll's findings as they prepare to make their case for how No Child Left Behind should be revised. Yesterday, National Education Association President Reg Weaver said the survey matched his group's findings. His organization's June poll found that 48 percent of the teachers union's members believe NCLB has hurt schools, compared with just 30 percent who said it had helped them. Lowell Rose, the poll's director and a critic of No Child Left Behind, said the poll confirmed his belief that NCLB must either reform its strategies or risk becoming completely obsolete.
More groups will release reports on No Child Left Behind in the next few months. A commission chartered by the Aspen Institute has been holding hearings across the country in preparation for its recommendations, to be released in early 2007. The Alliance for Excellence in Education has set a similar deadline.