Did Help Get Left Behind?
Congress reconsiders a landmark school reform
Yet the success stories may omit a crucial point: Although both of these schools owe their gains to NCLB, the law got them only so far. It requires a diagnosis, but it does not prescribe a cure. Or at least it doesn't pay much for one.
No Child does call for consistently failing schools to address their problems, by allowing students to transfer to another public school, for instance, or providing free help to low-income students. But these requirements have hardly guaranteed improvement. In Poplar, all tutoring services are offered online, but few families have Internet access. As for the transfer option, there is no other place to go. Nationwide, only 17 percent of students eligible for tutoring took advantage of it in the 2003-04 school year, and less than 1 percent chose to transfer. In some cases, as with Poplar, there were no alternatives; in others, the districts failed to adequately inform families about their options.
Required reforms become stronger and more specific when a school fails four years in a row. But as substantial as hiring new staff and changing curricula may seem, the White House would go even further. Its proposal for reauthorization calls for more sweeping changes, like overriding state bans to establish charter schools or enabling all-out takeovers by elected officials.
Many more obstacles block the path from testing students to helping them, and at the top of the list is money. Like other turnaround schools, Centennial Place owes much of its success to outside resources: Even before No Child, members of the local community volunteered as tutors and built a YMCA whose gym the school shares. Coca-Cola donated $50,000 in new books for the school's media center. Elsewhere in the country, failing schools often have to fend for themselves.
There is confusion, too, over what constitutes a failing school in the first place. A Maryland superintendent just informed the staff at Annapolis High School that they will all have to reapply for their jobs next year because they failed to meet No Child standards for four years in a row. Yet the same school exceeded the world average for scores on International Baccalaureate exams. Why the failing grade? It hinged on the poor performance of a single subgroup.
Dozens more issues will fuel the debate over No Child in the months ahead, including how to improve teaching, how to make state standards more uniform, and how to test children with limited English abilities or special needs. A bigger question is whether Congress can avoid partisan bickering and actually fix the flaws in the law before the act expires. If the law remains as it is, it could mean no relief for schools at a time they need it most.
As of last year, less than 1 percent of schools-about 600-had entered the "restructuring" phase that comes after five years of failure. "But that will increase every year," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. Not only are more schools testing; but as a 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency nears, they will face higher standards. "You can't just establish a goal and say, 'Y'all go at it,'" Jennings says. "We need to figure out ways to help schools and teachers do better, not just tell them that they've got problems."