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No Child Left Behind: the federal education reform act everybody loves to hate

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, September 1st, 2011 at 6:01 pm in California, Education, United States.

Educators across the state and country are struggling with what many view as an impossible task: bringing all students up to proficient levels in math and English in the next three years.

The task-master is the federal government, which has mandated success in every school that receives federal funding for its low-income students, under the law called No Child Left Behind.

But the mandate, established under President George W. Bush, has proven so difficult to achieve that it has become known among public relations and marketing professionals as “the most negative brand in the United States,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, during an education town hall meeting last month in Pleasant Hill.

“We’re trying to rewrite the Elementary Secondary Education Act,” said Miller, who is the ranking Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee. “You can’t say No Child Left Behind. It’s really negative.”

The rewrite is four years overdue, causing Miller to refer to it as static and outdated. Yet, he defended its goals.

“One of the efforts in that legislation was to begin to shine a light on what was taking place in our K-12 system,” said Miller, who helped write the law 10 years ago.

Before that, states and school districts touted average test scores to the public, often showing gains each year. Under this system, a majority of high-achieving students could give the public the impression that all students were doing well, while ignoring the minority that weren’t learning what they were supposed to.

“What we were doing is we were whipping the top 10 or 20 percent of students a little bit harder to bring up the averages and we only reported the averages,” Miller said. “And when things got difficult, usually we’d change the exam.”

When the tests changed, education officials told the public the scores couldn’t be compared to those from previous years. Thus, the testing system enabled educational agencies to continue glossing over those students who weren’t achieving at grade level.

“We were hiding from you what was happening in schools,” Miller said.

No Child Left Behind forced schools to acknowledge that some students — especially those who were poor, black, Latino, English language learners or students with disabilities — were falling through the cracks.

Nationwide, only 6 or 7 percent of minority students were reading at grade level by fourth grade, Miller said. By eighth grade, only 9 to 12 percent were proficient in math.

“We have a problem,” Miller said he and others on the committee agreed. “So, we said that we wanted the states to start to be accountable for the schools and what was going on in them. And we wanted to know how each and every child was doing.”

But the federal government didn’t dictate how states measured students’ progress, he said. Instead, it allowed each state to develop its own assessments.

“It was very controversial at the time,” Miller said. “We found out there was a huge division in America, most of it based on minority and income. Yes, in fact were leaving children behind. We were leaving them behind in droves.”

As a result of the federal government’s intervention, the reading achievement gap nationwide has narrowed and substantial gains have been made in math, Miller said.

“We’re pretty excited about that,” he said.

Still, he said No Child Left Behind needs to be changed. He doesn’t think drastic decisions should be made based on one percentage point, resulting in labeling teachers and schools as “failures.”

“I think what we need to do is dramatically different than what we’re doing now,” Miller said.

He’s a big proponent of common core curriculum standards to be taught in every state, preparing students for college and careers. So far, 47 governors have signed onto the idea, but details still need to be worked out.

Miller also wants all children to have access to highly qualified teachers. Right now, he said, a poor child has a one in seven chance of having a teacher without any background in math.

In addition, he supports federal funding for early childhood education, which he said provides the best bang for the government’s bucks.

“Good early childhood education is the greatest predictor of success,” Miller said. “If it didn’t matter, why is it that rich people fight one another to get their kids into a program?”

What do you think is the appropriate role of the federal government in education?

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