Push continues for overhaul of No Child Left Behind

Parts of it work while others fail miserably, education leaders say, leading many to call for a comprehensive overhaul of the now-6-year-old federal No Child Left Behind law.

“Although the ideology behind it is good – who wants to leave a child behind? – the actual implementation is flawed and it has not helped our children,” said Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

Touted as one of the country’s most bipartisan pieces of legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law affecting education from kindergarten through high school. President Bush signed NCLB into law on Jan. 8, 2002.

What’s good about it?

“It puts an emphasis on having high-quality teachers in the classroom,” Gilbert said. “Because of NCLB demanding that, schools and school districts have really been paying close attention to quality.”

And, he noted, NCLB “helps school districts actually see where achievement gaps are.”

Not helping those who need it
Where the law becomes flawed, Gilbert said, is that it does nothing to help states handle the teacher shortage issue and penalizes entire schools if certain subgroups of students, like English language learners or special education students, perform poorly on achievement tests.

“Another problem with the law is the arbitrary deadline,” Gilbert said. “It sets 2014 for the year that everybody should be 100 percent proficient. Although it sounds great, it was put out there without any consideration.”

But students can be 100 percent proficient on standardized tests in 2014, said Becky Hendrix, testing coordinator for the Lee County Schools. “It is already happening in some Mississippi schools.”

“I think the most controversial aspect of (NCLB) is accountability,” Hendrix said. “Part of the issue is each state determines their own definition of adequate yearly progress, so there’s no consistency from state to state as to what that entails.”

She explained that NCLB requires a certain percentage of students to be proficient in nine different subgroups: special education students, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, Asian students, black students, Hispanic students, Native American students and white students.

Data from the subgroups determine if a school has met the level of proficiency needed to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP, and schools that don’t make AYP for two consecutive years must enter a plan of improvement.

“That pulls federal funds away from classroom instruction,” Hendrix said, noting that accountability as it relates to NCLB is separate from Mississippi’s accountability system that rates public schools’ performance from Level 1-5.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, this law has forced us to look at individual students, and that’s good,” Hendrix said.

“It’s been a noble piece of legislation and there’s been a number of good things that have come out of it,” agreed Dr. Tom Burnham, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi and the state’s former superintendent of education.

Benefits available
Students benefit from the NCLB provision that teachers be highly qualified, and that’s what Ole Miss produces, he said.

“That part of it absolutely works,” said Burnham who, like Gilbert, said problems lie in the law’s implementation.

Also, “It operates under the assumption that all children start on the same level, and that’s a fallacy,” Burnham said.

“Should we have high expectations for all children? Absolutely,” said Dr. Hank Bounds, Mississippi’s current superintendent of education. “The real issue that I have is the consequence piece, in that a very small group of students not meeting expectations can signal the failure of an entire school. That’s problematic.”

Even though portions of NCLB are “inartfully drafted,” Bounds said the law was well-intentioned, and he’s hopeful improvements will be made when NCLB is reauthorized, which some speculate will be in 2009.

“There are lots of organizations pushing their agendas on Congress,” Bounds said, among them the Council of Chief State School Officers, which on Tuesday told Congress “it is time for the law to evolve.”

Burnham also is optimistic. “As a professional educator, that’s what I’m hopeful of.”
President Bush has said he will veto any legislation that weakens the law.

In the end? “I don’t think we’re going to know what’s going to happen until we get a new president,” Bounds said.

Contact Daily Journal education writer Ginny Miller at 678-1582 or ginny.miller@djournal.com.