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Effectiveness of No Child Left Behind Debated

April 3, 2007 at 3:40 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the impact of the No Child Left Behind law, as seen by two school officials. Ray Suarez begins with some background.

RAY SUAREZ: For millions of American schoolchildren, springtime not only brings more outdoor fun, it’s also standardized test season. And now their schools’ futures rest on how well they score.

Student test results have been a source of debate since the No Child Left Behind act was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The landmark federal education bill was signed into law by President Bush five years ago.

TEACHER: Make sure you get your homework copied.

RAY SUAREZ: No Child Left Behind proposed the most dramatic changes to elementary and middle school education in 40 years. It was a big domestic legislative victory during George W. Bush’s first year in the White House.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.

RAY SUAREZ: The law is up for reauthorization this year. It’s designed to improve student and teacher performance, in part by penalizing schools where scores on standardized tests do not improve rapidly enough.

No Child Left Behind requires public schools to conduct annual tests of third- through eighth-grade students in reading and math and have every student proficient in those subjects by 2014.

Schools that don’t meet new standards right away get extra federal aid to improve their curriculums and train teachers. Schools that fail to improve over the long term have to pay for students’ private tutoring and transportation to another public school. Low performing schools may be taken over and run by the state.

TEACHER: You may go to the computers. You may find pictures of “Alice in Wonderland.”

RAY SUAREZ: Some superintendents, principals and teachers have praised the law; others have complained the unfunded federal requirements cost too much, that reforms have turned teachers into test coaches, and classroom creativity has been squelched.

More than 20 states have sought to roll back all or some of the law, and President Bush faces a battle with Democrats and some members of his own party on Capitol Hill over its renewal this year.

Meeting the law's requirements

Now the views of two education administrators on how the law is working. Paul Vallas is chief executive officer for the school district in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He joins us this evening from New Orleans.

And Douglas Christenson is the commissioner of education in Nebraska. He's in Lincoln.

And, Commissioner Christensen, let's start with you. How is No Child Left Behind working in your state? Has it changed the school experience?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN, Commissioner of Education, Nebraska: In some respects, it's changed very little; in other respects, it's changed a lot.

In terms of what it's changed very little of, we were on a track in terms of dealing with all kids, looking at subgroup populations and their performance, and trying to make sure that we did everything we could to close those proficiency gaps.

What it's done in terms of perverting the system is caused us to look at documentation that we wouldn't otherwise have to do, caused us to look at some of the compliance requirements. And we spend a lot of time simply meeting the compliance aspects without really doing the work, of working with our kids that have the greatest needs, our schools that have the greatest needs. And so it's really been a distraction for the work that we wanted to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Vallas, how about the case in Philadelphia? Has No Child Left Behind helped your work? Has it changed the experience of going K through 12?

PAUL VALLAS, CEO, School District of Pennsylvania: Well, I think it's been very, very positive, because it's demanded accountability. And with accountability, it's forced school districts to look at superior curriculum instructional models, to look at the research to determine, what are the best practices?

When I select the reading curriculum or math curriculum, is there a great likelihood that the reading and math curriculums are going to deliver results?

I think the demand that there be highly qualified teachers in the classroom has given many school districts the leverage to, in effect, reconstitute staffs and, in effect, work teachers out of the system who just have not been advancing academically and have not achieved a level of proficiency.

And it's really forced schools and forced states, for that matter, to really hold everybody accountable, so I think it's been very positive, and just not from a Philadelphia perspective, but I spent six years as superintendent of public schools in Chicago. And I think the test score improvements in both the Chicago public schools and the Philadelphia public schools, really, over the last 10 years demonstrates the effectiveness of the act.

Reauthorizing the law

RAY SUAREZ: So, Paul Vallas, you'd like to see No Child Left Behind reauthorized in its current form?

PAUL VALLAS: Well, no, not necessarily. I'd like to see it reauthorized, but I think there needs to be flexibility.

For example, I think the goal of 100 percent of the children reaching proficiency is not a realistic goal. I think schools should be and states should be allowed to do value-added assessments, so you're giving schools safe harbors for improvement, for example.

You know, I think the reporting requirement and the accountability requirements do need to be simplified. We don't want to spend so much time in paperwork that we're detracting from instruction.

I think the act needs to be fully funded, and not just the cost of doing testing, but, more importantly, the cost of special education. The special education mandates imposes a tremendous responsibility, I don't want to say burden, because burden implies that educating kids is a burden, but it imposes a tremendous responsibility on schools.

And I think, if you're going to factor in special education scores into overall test scores, you need to make sure that those special education mandates are fully funded.

RAY SUAREZ: Douglas Christensen, do you want to see No Child Left Behind reauthorized in its current form?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: No, not in its current form. I think the notion that we would have a federal policy that would be an overarching umbrella policy over all the federal programs and funding sources would be a good thing to get them aligned to have the same purpose, the same intent, the same set of outcomes, that's a good thing.

But I think it has to be -- if it's to be reauthorized, it needs to consider the fact that the states are the senior partner in this enterprise. We're putting 90 percent of the funding into our schools; the feds are putting around 8 percent into it. And they've got 100 percent of the leverage in terms of accountability.

And I think No Child Left Behind distorts accountability by making testing be the centerpiece of the policy. There's nothing wrong with accountability. We all should be accountable. Schools should be accountable. Parents should be accountable, policymakers, boards of education, superintendents, all of us, not just the people that are in the school.

And I think that when we reduce that to testing, we've robbed teachers of the instructional tool of testing students in their classrooms, testing them at higher levels than any state test provides for, so that we are really measuring learning and not using a benchmark that really represents the recall of facts, the lowest level of content on the hierarchy scheme of learning. It seems to me that we can do better than this.

Need for an accountability system

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Vallas, you just heard your colleague from Nebraska be very critical of testing as the centerpiece. Does testing give you what they might call in the military "actionable intelligence"? If you get the results from the school, do you know what to do in response?

PAUL VALLAS: It depends on what type of testing you do. I think the act gives states a lot of flexibility and a lot of latitude in the type of assessment systems that they set up.

And let me point out that latitude has led to a lot of abuses, too, because, if you look at the NAEP exam results -- and the NAEP has kind of become kind of like a national standardized test. Many states participate in the NAEP exams.

And then you align the NAEP exam test results with the standardized test results from the state as a whole. I mean, the alignments are all over the map. You've got some states, like New York and others, where the performance of the schools on the state exam are very similar to the performance of the children on the NAEP exams. And then you have some other states where the gulf is dramatic.

So, you know, parents are under the impression in these states and in these school districts that their children are doing well. But yet, when you look at how they do on the NAEP exam, they're doing disastrously.

So, you know, I think you need to have an accountability system, and certainly you need to have an accountability system that is the type of accountability system that will give you enough information so that you can go out and you can make improvements, you can improve your instruction, you can perhaps modify your strategy, so to speak.

You know, so I think you need that type of an assessment system, but you also need some minimum standards, too, because, like I said, there's one state, for example, that cut their minimum promotion standards or their minimum promotion score in half and, of course, then celebrated a dramatic role in student achievement, but they did it, in effect, by basically dramatically lowering the bar.

You need the type of assessment system that's rigorous, but you also need the type of comprehensive assessment system that allows you to use the data from those assessments to improve instruction.

Improve 'real learning'

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Commissioner, if we continue as a country to use testing as a sorting mechanism in the way that No Child Left Behind prescribes, you heard Mr. Vallas refer to the NAEP as a sort of nationwide test. Would it help to compare state to state, county to county, indeed, school to school, to have a nationwide test, a nationwide report card even?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think this is the fundamental perversion of the whole testing and accountability mechanism, when we start looking at differences in schools from school to school and across schools, that it obscures the real issue. And it's that the difference of kids within a school that is something a school can do something about.

I don't know of a single school that can do something about the achievement of kids in a neighboring school, a school in another state, and so forth.

And for the most part, the differences across schools are differences in demographic challenges. The differences are impacted by the student population that's there. And it seems to me the accountability has got to be much broader than a school-level accountability.

We have to step up to the plate and talk about jobs for people living in poverty. We have to step up to the plate and talk about the support services for families so that they have medical care, their kids have eyeglasses if they need them.

This is about cities. This is about communities. This is about states. And this is about a nation. And it incidentally involves schools, as well.

And the whole notion that somehow a test is an accountability system is absolutely absurd, in my opinion. If we're going to really use data to fix instruction, to improve the quality of what goes on in a classroom, teachers need that data and that assessment system to be responsive, on time, in real time, so that, as they teach, they can correct.

I just think that whole assessment system or the whole testing notion is way out of line, given the power that it has to freeze the system, to freeze instruction, and to push everything to the lowest level, because what we've really got is a beauty contest going on.

It's more important for schools and districts and states to look good than it is to really be good. And real learning is something that you can't measure on a paper-pencil test.

RAY SUAREZ: Douglas Christensen and Paul Vallas, gentlemen, thank you both.

PAUL VALLAS: Thank you.