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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The rewrite is four years overdue, causing Miller to refer to it as static and outdated.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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  • Doctor J

    As much as NCLB makes us squirm at some of its arbitrary lines in the sand, it does make us focus on EVERY child and reinforces that EVERY child deserves a good education, not just gifted children. I do agree with Congressman Miller that we can’t just whip the best students to do better, forgetting those on the lower rungs, and then delight that the “averages” have risen. Most of the people reading this post will have above average IQ’s, have college educations, and despite the tough economic times have full refrigerators. There are far too many children in our district that regard school as the safest place in their life, feel love from their teachers and fellow students, and success from being praised for their efforts in school, only to return home each evening to chaos, uncertainity, and empty refrigerators. If you think of a class of school children on a ladder, each one is at a different level. Our job is to assist EVERY child to step up a rung or two, enjoy the success of learning, and feel that being at school is a safe place, where they are loved, and can excel at their own pace. Education is not a test score — it is an experience and one that every child should look forward to every day. Children all need to experience love and success — sometimes unfortunately the only place they do that is at school.

  • Flippin’ Tired

    While NCLB might be a good idea in theory, it’s a giant unfunded mandate. The feds want the country to be one big Lake Wobegone? Then cough up the money to do it, and let districts put into place programs that might actually work.

    Tossing English-Language learners into a mainstream class on their first day in the country is insane. “Sink or swim?” Too many of them sink. If we were allowed to (temporarily) put them into groups that will help them learn English quickly, as well as keep up with the regular curriculum, they might have a fighting chance.

  • Doctor J

    Hey Flippin, you still owe me the Board policies and state law you claimed, but never delivered. NCLB is not an unfunded mandate — MDUSD just received last year several million and then didn’t comply with the requirements. They are lucky we didn’t have to give it back, but their new “plan” still doesn’t comply with the federal SIG grant requirements as laid out in your buddy Torlakson’s letter of August 11. Quit being a bag of hot air that doesn’t back up your boasts with facts. FT=PP.

  • Flippin’ Tired

    I’m a district parent, “Doctor” J, not Paul or Pete. I don’t owe you jack.

    When are you gonna run for the board? Oh, yeah, never, because you “can’t.” Suuuuuuuuuure.

  • Just J

    I agree with Dr. J. And the only thing I agree with George Miller on is Education (for the most part) I have read “No Child Lest Behind” cover to cover and refer to it very often. The reason the Federal Goverment got involved in the 60′s and have re-written the law every few years or so is because States WILL NOT DO WHAT IS RIGHT for the STUDENTS (all of them) In my case I have a few of those advanced students that school comes easy and they are just sailing along but I also have one that has an LD. Unfortunatly the District already ownes the right right program to teach my child but they refuse to use it. I found this out after I offered to by the program for them. My child was falling further and further behind.
    We have tons of love and safty in the home but unfortunatly the teachers at the local school bullied me and my child. My child suffered from Anxiety over school. I was told that NCLB does not have a place in our school. This is the exact reason that the Federal Government put it in place. NCLB or whatever they change the name to does have a real need and a place. I belive that the schools don’t like it because for the first time they are forced to be accountable by 2014. They have wasted so much time complaining about it that now it is right around the corner and they can’t hide any longer. I am not sure I understand why exactly these “Loving Educators” would not like it. If they are doing their job it should not be difficult….Oh yea I forgot most teachers want to do their job but can’t because of the idiots in charge.

    For those of you that say standardized testes are bad….Well I went to school in MDUSD and that was MANY MANY years ago. They had testing then and should continue to have it. Open your eyes people, pay attention and don’t just assume that if you have one child that is doing great that all others should be able.

  • 4Students

    Doc J #1,
    That’s your best post ever, and you’ve had some doozies. Forget running for the board. I nominate you for superintendent.

  • MDUSD Board Watcher

    Hey flippin,

    PP= Poseidon Paul. Good to see you still hanging around here Paul. Do you think you might get pulled into the future investigation of the MDUSD?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Regarding Dr. J’s comment about children feeling loved at school:
    I was at Rio Vista Elementary in Bay Point yesterday to see how teachers inspired students to do so well on their STAR tests.
    Fifth-grade teacher Jonathan Moses was showing students how to set up a bank account ledger. He told them he would give them some imaginary money they could deposit into their accounts.
    “You’re getting some ‘Mr. Moses Loves Me’ money,” he said. “Write that title. That’s the transaction we’re doing.”
    They smiled as they wrote that in their log books.

  • Doctor J

    Thank you 4Students #6. CCT will not let me do a guest editorial since they don’t know “who I am”. Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, would have been SOL.

  • Just J

    Theresa, Thank you for sharing that. That is incredible and this teacher is obviously Awesome! It is nice to hear stories like this.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Yes, I was very impressed by Moses’ teaching and classroom management strategies.
    The students were focused, knew what was expected of them and also got to have some fun!
    I’ll be writing more about Rio Visa in an upcoming story about School Improvement Grants.

  • Doctor J

    @#4 Flippin — when asked for the “facts” on your claim there were board policies and California law, you refused to answer and to provide substance to your hollow claims — you have no credibility. SSA Hotchner has profiled you as Poseiden Paul despite your frivilous denials. You are busted. Halloween isn’t until Oct 31.

  • Doctor J

    Something special happened at Rio Vista this last year and we all look forward to hearing about it. While a football coach may call the plays, they are run by the players. While praise should go to the coaches [the teachers] most of the praise should go to the players [the students] who “ran” the plays. To make this happen, it takes a great principal, a unified staff, and students who are motivated to learn. There are other schools too where this has happened. Delta View a couple of years ago, and Meadow Homes and Rio Vista this last year. What ?? Bay Point schools ? EVERY child has potential.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I have just posted a blog piece focused on Meadow Homes: http://bit.ly/qIX2Bw
    I have also posted a big picture look at scores in Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley area of Alameda County: http://bit.ly/qcN08l

  • Doctor J

    Did MDUSD make the Sept 12 deadline to get its SIG Grants Corrective Action in ?

  • Doctor J

    Today was the day the CDE was to announce approval of any of the SIG Grants Corrective Action submissions. It looks like MDUSD lost $15 million in SIG grants since its “corrective action” was not approved today. How sad since it was pretty clear that the MOU with MDEA did not meet the requirements set out by Supt. Torlakson. In fact, the Board never considered nor approved the SIG grant “corrective action” submission. http://www.cde.ca.gov/BE/ag/ag/yr11/documents/sep11item05a1.pdf#search=corrective%20action%20sig&view=FitH&pagemode=none
    Does the MDUSD ship even have a captain ?

  • Wait a Minute

    Theresa, I hope you can confirm this and do an article about this because its a huge it on the MDUSD’s budget that affects the children, staffs and taxpayers.

  • Wait a Minute

    Typo, I meant to say a huge HIT on the district’s budget.

  • Number Eight

    Dr J #16,
    You’re right, again. Lawrence is AWOL as far as I can tell. We learned recently that he doesn’t call Theresa like Nicoll did, that he lets Pedersen decide whether Holbrook gets solar, that he let the employee responsible for special ed busing take a sudden leave of absence, that the EL audit showed no effective program, et cetera et cetera et cetera. We were shocked, shocked to get a personal phone message from him, with the board meeting time correction. He’s alive, somewhere, but how many in the district even know what he looks like? Where o where has the superintendent gone, where o where can he be…?

  • Interested Board Observer

    At #19: He’s putting out grass fires, because there’s no cohesive plan for fire prevention… And he’s using a water gun because the fire hoses have rotted and the coupling link to the fire hydrant got vandalized…He called for a fire engine but somebody took a leave of absence. Meanwhile, on top of Mt. D, there were a few more lightning strikes…

  • Number Eight

    The fire metaphor is apropos since Spring 2010 when asked about a strategic plan, Supt Lawrence said that they’re too busy putting out fires. He’s been the fire chief 18 months since and still MDUSD is a firestorm. Lawrence coulda woulda shoulda recruited a bucket brigade to help. Parents like Linda L were ready to roll up sleeves to pass a parcel tax which woulda been a fire extinguisher. But Lawrence went with the bond which threw gasoline on the flames instead of water.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I received an email from a teacher who is frustrated by the lack of workbooks for students.
    Tonight at 7 p.m., the board will meet to discuss districtwide strategic planning.

  • Doctor J

    @Th#22 That is the $175,000 mistake in ordering from the wrong company.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Special MDUSD board strategic planning meeting reminder: http://bit.ly/mYdL3Y

  • Theresa Harrington

    It appears that California is not rushing for the chance to apply for an NCLB waiver according to US Dept. of Ed. requirements: http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_19098747

  • 4Students

    Okay, MDUSD is a NCLB Program Improvement district and subject to sanctions like moving teachers out of schools. Realistically what is MDUSD looking at here?

  • Theresa Harrington

    The district must notify parents and come up with a plan for addressing its deficiencies, after assessing its achievement data with a team of district parents, teachers and administrators. It must also set aside a portion of its Title 1 funding for professional development.

    Here’s what should be in the plan (from CDE):

    “LEAs should begin the plan revision with an analysis of the reason(s) for PI identification. The LEA should conduct an in-depth analysis of its achievement data patterns and current educational practices to determine whether it obtained PI status because of the achievement or participation rate of a single group, or because of multiple low achievement trends across grade spans and/or subject areas. The state has developed several analytic tools (listed below) to inform the LEA planning process. Use of these tools is required to ensure that the needs of all students are addressed. (California Education Code Section 52055.57[6]) LEAs should begin implementing the plans outlined in the LEA Plan Addendum immediately upon its completion and local board approval.

    Content Requirements for LEA Plan Addendum
    According to provisions in ESEA, the LEA Plan Addendum is required to meet all requirements specified in ESEA Section 1116(c)(7)(A)(i) through (viii):

    Address the fundamental teaching and learning needs in the schools of the LEA and the specific academic problems of low-achieving students, including a determination of why the prior LEA Plan failed to bring about increased student achievement.
    Identify actions that have the greatest likelihood of improving the achievement of students in meeting state standards.
    Incorporate scientifically based research strategies that strengthen the core academic program in schools served by the LEA.
    Include specific, measurable achievement goals and targets for all students and subgroups, addressing all elements of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
    Address the professional development needs of the instructional staff. Indicate that the LEA will dedicate not less than 10 percent of the LEA Title I allocation for high quality professional development.
    Identify how technical assistance will be obtained to support implementation of the LEA Plan revisions (e.g., Senate Bill 472 training, Assembly Bill 430 training, county office support, and work with such organizations as the California School Boards Association, California Teachers Association, Association of California School Administrators, California Federation of Teachers, Parent Teacher Association, institutions of higher education, and public and private organizations).
    Incorporate, as appropriate, learning activities before school, after school, during the summer, and during an extension of the school year.
    Include strategies to promote effective parental involvement in the school.”

    The school board needs to approve the plan and then the district is supposed to begin implementing it “expeditiously.”

  • Theresa Harrington

    The US Dept. of Ed. has released the list of 39 states that have signaled their intent to apply for NCLB waivers: http://www.ed.gov/esea/flexibility.
    California is not among them.

  • Just J

    Theresa, That is not a surprise. California teachers union will never accept the waiver terms. This is part of the problem. They complain that NCLB is horrible but they are not willing to work with anyone to help fix it. It is all about accountability and there is none here.

  • Doctor J

    Theresa, have the parents been notified in writing ?
    How much is the Title 1 funding, and then we can determine the 10% for Professional Development. I hope we don’t see lots of out of town and overnight trips to soak up the Professional Development money. Is there a current plan ? When is the PLan Revision due ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s a letter to the editor from Rep. George urging CA to seek the waiver: http://bit.ly/mQplWP