No School Left Ahead?
"No Child Left Behind" Program May Be Leaving Schools in the Lurch
by Alan D. McNarie
"Most of us celebrated
the turn of the century on January 1, 2000. But for America's children, the
turn of the century came on January 8, 2002," began the letter from U.S.
Education Secretary Rod Paige to the American public.
Paige, whose letter appears on the Department of Education website (http://www.ed.gov/nclb/overview/welcome/index.html) was referring to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the controversial federal education initiative that President George W. Bush signed into law on January 8, 2002. NCLB, Paige claims, "will invest in successful public education instead of continuing to fund a failing system. The new law will give states more flexibility on how they spend their education dollars. In return, it requires them to set standards for student achievement, and hold students, teachers and other educators accountable for results."
The bill's supporters hope that it will finally force improvement in the nation's - and the state's - school systems. But the new law's detractors fear that it is actually adding a nightmarish new bureaucratic burden for the schools to shoulder, without providing adequate funding to pay for it.
Eight Out of 50 Schools
Under NCLB, every public school that accepts federal money for any program would be measured annually against a stringent national checklist. Those schools that failed to meet the checklist's 37 different Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) criteria would be classified as "In Good Standing, Conditional." Failure to meet the criteria for two years in a row would reduce the school's status to "School Improvement Year 1," forcing the school to adopt a two-year improvement plan and giving parents at least the theoretical right to pull their children from the school and send them to another with "Good Standing" or "Good Standing - Conditional" status. Three bad years in a row would demote the school to "School Improvement Year 2" and force it to offer tutoring to economically disadvantaged students. Four years of failure in a row would lead to "Corrective Action" status, forcing staff and curriculum changes; five years of inadequate progress would lead to "Planning for Restructuring," under which drastic measures could be introduced, including replacing most of the school staff and/or conversion of the public school to a privately-run or charter school.
Nearly three years later, Hawaii's schools are feeling the weight of the new program's stringent standards. Many schools in the Federal Government's Title I Program, which provides extra aid to schools with high percentages of students from low-income families, have already found themselves assigned to "Planning for Restructuring" status based on their past records of testing. Of the Big Island's 50 schools, 32 failed to meet NCLB's Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements last year; 12 schools are already in Planning for Restructuring. Only eight have earned unconditional Good Standing - and half of those schools are small charter or laboratory schools. None of the island's high schools met this year's AYP standards. Over a vast swath of the island's southern coast, from Honaunau in South Kona through all of Pahala in Ka'u, none of the schools have made even Conditional Good Standing.
Doomed to Failure?
According to the Federal DOE website, the program's annual "report cards" on each school are based on a number of factors, including " student academic achievement disaggregated by subgroups," "comparison of students at basic, proficient, and advanced levels of academic achievement," "graduation rates," "professional qualifications of teachers," "percentages of students not tested," and "whether the school has been identified as 'in need of improvement.'" The 37 benchmarks include Language Arts/Reading and Math proficiency scores of each grade in Grades 3-8, as well as the percentage of proficient scores among students classified as "learning disabled," students who speak English as a second language, and lower income students in the Free and Reduced Lunch program. The students in the last three groups are expected to reach the same percentage of efficiency as their peers in the general population.
"Testing tells parents, communities, educators and school boards which schools are doing well. If a school takes a challenging population and achieves great results, testing will show that. If a school is allowing certain groups to fall behind year after year, testing will expose that, too," contends the website's description of the program.
But some of those charged with creating and administering those tests believe that they're based on a flawed concept that may lead to more harm than good. One of the program's critics is Mike Heim of the Hawai'i Department of Education's Planning and Evaluation Branch.
"Among my peers, we call this [the NCLB's testing structure] a fully conjunctive model, which is a fancy way of saying that each and every condition must be met at the same time," explains Heim. He notes that a school may meet or exceed expectations in most of the 37 categories, but still be rated unsatisfactory if it fails to make the grade in even one category.
"To expect schools to be nearly perfect in 37 different criteria all at the same time, is, I believe, unrealistic," he contends. "In real life, people behave in a compensatory fashion. More often than not, in everyday life, people can make up for a weakness, by compensating for it with strengths in another area."
The same, he believes, may be true of organizations made up of people: they're never strong in every area, but compensate for weaknesses in one area with exceptional strengths in others. Students who experience a weak fourth-grade curriculum may excel under an exceptional fifth grade teacher; a high school may need improvement in its geometry classes, but have an exceptional science program.
The school status assigned by NCLB's Annual Progress Reports can stigmatize the entire school, based on the school's weakest link, Heim contends.
"It's almost as if somebody put this thing together without thinking about what happens to the people that comprise this organization . . . and perhaps without thinking through very clearly the effects that these negative labels will have on people," he suspects. "I wonder if the people that designed this thought that humiliation would be motivating. I'm not so sure that it is." He notes that some school principals have told him, "It seems we're doomed to failure."
Not all school officials are so pessimistic. John Thatcher, who manages Connections Charter School in Hilo, believes that overall, NCLB will probably be "more beneficial than detrimental" to his and other charter schools. He notes that all charter schools are already living under the sword that NCLB places over the heads of other public schools:
"If a charter school doesn't fulfill those obligations, it loses its charter," he notes. "NCLB basically extends that principle to all public schools."
Right now, he believes, the NCLB testing benchmarks are set so low that they ought to be achievable, even if there are 37 of them. For the program's first three years, he says, the benchmarks require that only 30 percent of the students in each category need to be proficient at reading, and only 10 percent must be proficient at math.
"If a school only has 30 percent of their population reading at grade level, they're not doing something right," Thatcher maintains.
One point on which Heim and Thatcher agree, however, is that increasing numbers of schools are likely to receive failing NCLB report cards in the future.
Thatcher points out that for the next three years, the benchmarks for the percentage of students in each group who are reading up to their grade level will rise to 44 percent, and the math proficiency benchmark will rise to 38 percent. The standards will continue to rise for the next decade. According to the Federal DOE website, every student in the country is expected to be proficient in math and language skills by the 2012-13 school year.
"Unless there are really, really major changes, we're going to see a lot more schools that are going to be failing," predicts Thatcher.
Heim has an even gloomier prognosis.
"In 3-5 years, virtually every school in the country is going to be labeled in need of improvement," he believes.
The Numbers Game
Some critics point out another problem with the NCLB testing regimen: statistical validity. Back in the heyday of "grading on the curve" - the practice of assigning grades so that the majority of students received a 'C' and smaller numbers received 'A's and 'F's, producing a statistical bell-shaped curve on a graph - dissenters pointed out that to produce a statistically valid "natural" bell curve, a class would have to contain at least 400 students. A similar problem haunts the NCLB testing regimen. The NCLB rules only require testing of 30 students to obtain a benchmark sample. In some smaller Hawai'i schools, especially, there simply aren't enough in a given class to produce even this limited sample.
In the short run, notes State DOE curriculum specialist Kathy Kawaguchi, this has worked to the advantage of the smaller schools, which have been measured only on the benchmarks for which they have the required minimum numbers.
"It was rare that all 37 components applied to every single school," she notes. "If you didn't have at least 30 in that particular class that would be an N.A. [not applicable] for that particular component."
But that will change in the future, she says, whether the schools have adequate numbers or not.
"By 2005 or 2006, they would take whatever data they have and compute the AYP for that school," she said. "At some point, you have to hold all the schools accountable."
Thatcher knows, from personal experience, the problems of working with assessments based on small numbers. "If you look at the latest report on us, you'll see that we missed out by one point with our economically disadvantaged group," he notes. "One child who was listed as a fifth grader was actually a fourth grader. I'm asking them to look at it again."
He says he is "not going to worry too much about it, because I know our test scores are going to be better this year." But he adds, "When you have small populations, it's very skewed. When you're basing everything on percentage points, and you have a very small number of kids, then one kid can have a big effect on your percentage points."
But for parents trying to find the best school for their children, this statistical problem has very practical implications. Two of the claims that the Federal DOE repeatedly makes about the NCLB program is that it will provide scientifically valid tools to measure a school's progress and that, in Paige's words, it " will give parents new opportunities to make sure their children receive the very best education possible." But of the handful of Hawai'i Island schools that made unconditional "Good Standing" this year, the majority may be there not because they had met all 37 benchmarks, but because there was not enough data to measure whether the school had met all the benchmarks. And unless parents look at all the benchmarks, not just the overall AYP rating, they may pass over a school that would function very well for their particular children.
Back to Busing?
Another much-trumpeted claim is that NCLB will offer parents of children in deficient schools the option of moving their children to better schools. Ironically, a conservative Republican administration is now claiming that some schools are inherently unequal, and is advocating busing as a solution.
"If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for two years and continues to be identified as in need of improvement after receiving special help and resources, then students are eligible to transfer to another public school with transportation provided," claims the Federal DOE website.
In reality, though, that claim may be exaggerated. And if it were true, it could create as many problems as it solved.
Consider the case of Ka'u, for instance. Both of the district's schools, with a collective total of around 900 students, are currently in "Planning for Restructuring" status - the poorest possible category. The nearest school in "Good Standing" is tiny Volcano School of Arts and Sciences, a charter school with a current capacity of only 105 students.
"We could take some of the kids," says Ted Persig, the school's Business Manager. But he adds, "We are completely full in some grade levels, and nearly full in others."
If the Federal DOE gets its way, his school might have to accept more children than he would like.
"There was a policy letter from Secretary Paige to State Superintendents last fall. We all just sort of dropped our jaws when we read it," recounts Mike Heim. "It said that the state could not use capacity as a reason to refuse public school choice . . . Somehow, we'd have to find the zillions of dollars to enable that public school choice."
In other words, the state could not refuse to transfer a student from a poorly rated school to a school in "Good standing," even if all such schools were full. The results, ironically, could knock the schools in "Good Standing" out of out of their standing, with an influx of students that the schools don't have the physical capacity or the personnel to serve.
Fortunately and/or unfortunately, however, the federal DOE in reality has shown more flexibility than its leader admits - and parents may not have all the freedom of choice that Bush Administration press releases have claimed. According to Kawaguchi, for instance, federal officials have already compromised with the state on the issue of Molokai, where none of the schools have measured up to par. It will allow Molokai students to receive extra tutoring help, rather than forcing the state to fly them to Maui.
Kawaguchi also maintains that according to the federal rules, not every student in a school that is out of NCLB compliance will be allowed to transfer. Instead, a priority system may be set up, giving the first chance of transferring to students who are in academic trouble and those who come from lower-income households.
Thatcher contends that the State Department of Education, in fact, has shown little enthusiasm about even preparing to move students from deficient schools.
"There are NCLB grants that provide for transportation," he says. "The state could have applied for them. I even offered to write the grant a couple of years ago. I tried to put together a team to write the grant. But the State DOE just kind of dragged their feet. . . "
Thatcher also accuses some local schools of concealing their capacity to take on more students.
"In some schools I've seen, there were four or five classrooms just being used for storage space for old computers," he recounts, "and the administrators were saying that those rooms were being used for technology resources. And that was a lie."
But even if space in a better school was available and buses or vouchers were provided, the realities of geography, money and time would still limit the choices of some parents. Some Big Island families live more than 50 miles from the nearest grade school in Good Standing, and nearly 90 miles from the nearest high school in Good Standing-Conditional. They would have to choose between sending their children to a low-rated nearby school, or forcing them to endure several hours a day on a school bus.
Another common criticism of NCLB is that the Bush Administration has passed out more rhetoric and rules than money and support.
Heim calls the program an "under-funded mandate." The money his office has gotten for the new testing program, for instance, might have funded multiple choice tests, he says, but not the battery of tests required to determine reading and math skills, which usually require written paragraphs and mathematical proofs.
The same sorts of problems are surfacing not just in the school bureaucracy, but in the schools themselves.
"You're told to do X, Y and Z, and suddenly you find out that there are no funds available to do X, Y and Z," complains Persig.
Lack of operating funds, compounded with the state's budget shortfalls, hiring freezes, and the NCLB's requirements for rapid implementation - Kawaguchi points out that the state had to have a "consolidation plan" for NCLB in place by June of 2002, months before the USDOE had even supplied its guidelines for such a plan - have driven some educators to the edge.
"I, and a number of other people, don't want to go through another year like we've just been through, or else we won't be here," says Heim. "Either we're going to die, or we're going to walk away from the job."
The USDOE website points out that the NCLB does give the schools greater flexibility with the federal funds that they already receive. But it also places new demands on those funds. The law requires that up to 5 percent of Title I funds - money earmarked to help schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students - be used by schools with unsatisfactory ratings to ship their students to better schools.
The law has also hit the schools hard in other ways. Persig notes that one of the school's most experienced teachers had to return to school herself to take additional courses, in order to meet newly tightened teacher certification requirements. He finds it ironic that the law is depriving his school of teachers who are achieving the results the NCLB demands.
"It eliminates the local control, which is ironic for the charter schools, because there is accountability built in," he comments. "The idea of a charter school is that you come up for renewal periodically, and your accountability for the performance of the students will be reviewed at that time."
Discontent with the new program has started to reach the ears of Hawaii's legislators. Representative Ed Case recently sent a letter to local school administrators, seeking suggestions on how to reform the school reform law. The educators that the Journal talked to had several suggestions, including more small schools with higher teacher-to-student ratios, more emphasis on student contentment in rating surveys - "If a student likes being in school, he's going to learn," maintains Thatcher - and a greater emphasis on children's total environment, not just the classroom. And of course, a more realistic testing regimen.
"We have students who come to school hungry. We have students to come to school unable to study because their parents had such a horrendous fight last night that they're terribly distraught. We have students who come to school not knowing where to sleep the next night," notes Heim. "That all affects their class performance."
Some DOE officials maintain that the school system isn't in quite as bad a shape as its publicity warrants - Heim notes that overall, the various testing criteria for school performance are sending out a "mixed signal of what's going on here." Compared to other states, he says, Hawaii's NCLB results are about "the middle of the pack."
But even the program's critics tend to admit that its goals of better schools and universal education are difficult to argue with, and acknowledge a wave of discontent with public education as it is - especially in Hawai'i. When the Journal's predecessor, Ka'u Landing, published a three-part series about the Hawai'i education system in 1995, it provoked a flood of letters and calls from distraught parents, each with his or her own horror story about trying to deal with unresponsive teachers and administrators. In the years since then, parents and educators have tried a host of reforms: charter schools, the Felix vs.Waihe'e lawsuit, and Community Children's Councils, to name a few. Despite those efforts, when the Journal held a reader poll earlier this year, island residents voted the DOE the dubious honor of "Best Example of a Dysfunctional Government Agency." Whatever the flaws of NCLB, it represents a real wave of public discontent.
"I think we have to go back to Congress again, and ask them to develop a broader solution," believes Heim. " . . . We can't do it alone. If we're expected to do it alone, we are doomed to failure."