Sign up for the EdSource Symposium today! Registration ends September 28th
Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg

Nearly a dozen years after President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law, its deepest imprint may be its labeling of 90 percent of California’s schools serving poor children as failures.

That is the depressing conclusion to be drawn from the latest scorecard of how California schools have done on the impossibly high bar set by the law on a range of accountability measures.

It is by now well known that the law, whose purpose was to close the achievement gap, has failed to do so. While there have been some improvements in some states, the achievement gap, on average, between white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Latino students, on the other, remains far too high — between 20 and 30 percentage points on state tests.

What seems clear is that not only have many children been left behind, but so have many schools.

The 2002 law, now in its twilight years, imposed a set of rewards and sanctions intended to nudge, prod and shove schools and districts to do better, even if it meant removing staff, closing schools, or having the state take over schools and districts. 

Instead, NCLB has deteriorated into an elaborate accountability system whose end result is to label more and more schools as failures, without giving them the resources to improve.

The law did force schools to keep track of student performance based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds and other characteristics. But the latest results released by the California Department of Education underscore the ineffectiveness of the law in achieving its primary goal. Only 8 percent of elementary schools, 4 percent of middle schools and 24 percent of high schools covered by the law — schools receiving federal Title I funds intended for poor children — made the necessary “annual yearly progress” or AYP as prescribed by NCLB.

In a bizarre outcome, instead of having more schools succeed in response to the law’s numerous sanctions, many more have ended up being labeled as “in need of program improvement, which means that they (and numerous student subgroups) have failed to make “annual yearly progress” for two years in a row. 

In 2002, 1,200 California schools were labeled as being “in need of program improvement,” or PI schools, in the vernacular of the law. By this year, the number has risen to 4,996 (out of 6,135 so-called Title I schools). What’s more, entire school districts – 566 of them – have also received the same “program improvement” label, the equivalent of a failing school under the law.

This spiral of failure occurred exactly as the number of schools deemed to be succeeding under California’s own accountability law – those with an Academic Performance Index of more than 800 – increased steadily each year, from 21 percent of schools in 2001-02 to 51 percent of schools this year.

Further proof of the law’s ineffectiveness has been the near impossibility of schools shedding the “program improvement” label once it has been imposed. As the new figures from California show, of the nearly 5,000 schools in program improvement, only 28 were able to “exit” from “program improvement” last year, to use the confusing terminology of the law.

One reason for this has to do with one of the law’s most basic deficiencies: the unattainable requirement that 100 percent of children be “proficient” in reading and math by the end of the current school year, as measured by their performance on standardized state tests.   

Each year, the bar has been raised, requiring ever-higher percentages of students to be “proficient” on state tests – and then only on two subjects (reading and math). Because California has relatively high standards compared to many other states, and, unlike some others, has refused to lower them, increasing numbers of schools have been unable to escape being labeled as underperforming.  

What has made “improvement” under the law even more elusive is that students at a school could actually do better on state tests from one year to the next, and yet the school would still be chastised for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” because the improvement wouldn’t be sufficient to meet the ever-rising percentage of students that must score at a proficient level.

Requiring every one of numerous student subgroups to meet the prescribed proficiency levels each year has added to the challenge. Last year 89 percent of students in every subgroup had to perform at a proficient level — or the school would be be labeled as failing to improve.   Come testing time this spring, the target will jump to 100 percent. 

Another flaw in the law is that California, like most states, has not had the resources to intervene in schools that ran afoul of NCLB’s standards. Especially as a result of the state’s budget crisis over the last five years, intervention became a near impossibility as the number of “failing” schools soared to stratospheric levels.

And none of this touches on the fact that the law only measured how students — and schools — performed on two subjects, and then only narrowly measured how much they had learned based on mostly multiple-choice answers on tests, not the “deeper learning” that is required for students to leave schools ready for college or careers.

Just last week U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned the NCLB law as “outmoded and broken. “Its inflexible accountability provisions have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score,” Duncan wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Duncan has granted waivers to 41 states – and eight districts in California – which relieves them of the most counterproductive requirements of the law, including those that result in schools being labeled as failures, demoralizing staff at a time when they are expected to enthusiastically implement another ambitous multi-state initiative, the Common Core state standards. However, Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education have balked at agreeing to the many new requirements demanded by the Obama administration in return for an NCLB waiver.

Thus, other than those schools in districts with waivers, California schools must still comply with a law that will likely soon result in 100 percent of schools serving low-income students being labeled as failures, as prescribed by a law that even the Obama administration derides as an anachronism.

Louis Freedberg is the executive director of EdSource.


Join the conversation by going to Edsource's Twitter or Facebook pages. If you do not have a social media account, you can learn how to create a Twitter account here and a Facebook account here.

  1. Chris Stampolis 3 years ago3 years ago

    Navigio, I appreciate our dialogues. Perhaps a real issue is how to ensure that neighborhood public schools in poor communities provide an equitable path to elite higher education as that offered by schools attended by students of wealthy families - private and public. In order to serve the kids who cannot read, should we hold back or lower expectations for students who could soar to compete with wealthier cross-towners for high powered admissions? … Read More

    Navigio, I appreciate our dialogues. Perhaps a real issue is how to ensure that neighborhood public schools in poor communities provide an equitable path to elite higher education as that offered by schools attended by students of wealthy families – private and public. In order to serve the kids who cannot read, should we hold back or lower expectations for students who could soar to compete with wealthier cross-towners for high powered admissions? Do we quietly wink and nod and acknowledge the limitations of public education by coaching top students to non-public-school pathways?

    Guiding a student of low parent education levels through to any Bachelor’s Degree is a win. But, realistically, looking at the US economy today’s youth have inherited, a Bachelor’s Degree alone is no match for multiple graduate degrees or the professional certifications that offer flexibility and mobility in 21st century employment.

    As countries of devastating poverty embrace the industrial revolution for the first time, the USA must recognize that US 20th century manufacturing dominance is gone for coming generations. Tomorrow’s young adults in the USA will compete not just with East Asia and Europe, but with billions of children of African and South American and Southeast Asian subsistence farmers who are gearing up to perform the manufacturing and assembly duties that USA high school grads previously found available. A quick look around your residence should answer the question of how much of your “stuff” was manufactured or even assembled in the USA before your purchase. Countries much poorer than China are ready to shift the “Made in” stickers from China to new names we barely know.

    So, yes, public schools have to address the many students who reach middle school and cannot read. And the public schools have to serve the kids who are on path for solid “B” high school averages and a 2.7ish college GPA to earn a diploma. And the public schools also have to serve, recruit and retain the kids who have the proficiency and aptitude to compete at the highest levels of US education. Especially in California where a child of renters will find it very difficult to enter into future property ownership due to lack of parental housing equity, we have to provide pathways to financial opportunity. The cycle of poverty will be eroded when more children of poverty beat out children of wealth or privilege for limited enrollment spots at the USA’s bonton institutions. To get those few academic spots, they must present competitive academic transcripts.

    – Chris

  2. Chris Stampolis 3 years ago3 years ago

    Disappointing to read the same defensive comments - from both sides. The discussion should focus on why some Title One schools have achieved outstanding proficiencies and other Title One schools have put up consistently lower scores. While NCLB is/was not perfect, students would not have achieved greater academic proficiencies and college/career readiness if we had not tested. What we know instead is the achievement gap is real. However, and this is a BIG … Read More

    Disappointing to read the same defensive comments – from both sides. The discussion should focus on why some Title One schools have achieved outstanding proficiencies and other Title One schools have put up consistently lower scores. While NCLB is/was not perfect, students would not have achieved greater academic proficiencies and college/career readiness if we had not tested. What we know instead is the achievement gap is real.

    However, and this is a BIG however, there are some neighborhood public schools with socioeconomically disadvantaged (SED) kids, low Parent Education Level (PEL) and challenging English Language Learner (ELL) populations where the students still achieved high proficiencies on the AYP evaluations.

    Those standards of success are what should be expected in every corner of the USA – by every community – and we should seek to foster that success.

    When society notes that some communities have succeeded with challenging populations, it’s valuable to society to discuss what is replicable. Instead we too often read about how these discussions make teachers and administrators feel uncomfortable. Let’s make this discussion about kids’ outcomes. If we need partnerships with business, let’s speak it. If we need partnerships with municipal government, get it done. If we need stronger interactions with neighborhoods, then we have to discuss. Is it about parents? Is it about kids’ commitment? Is it about society? Yes in part to everything, but we cannot throw up our hands and presume the achievement gap simply is what it is. Schools employees cannot solve these challenges alone. All of us must work together for improvement.

    The United States in 2013 is loaded with poverty and low PEL and high ELL in every community. How do we ensure those challenged children leave 12th grade college and career ready – with comparable work opportunities as high PEL, low ELL, financially-comfortable families, based on the economy of this country in this generation?

    Complaining about imperfections in testing won’t lift children to expanded career opportunities.

    Chris Stampolis
    Governing Board Member, Santa Clara Unified School District
    Member, Democratic National Committee
    408-771-6858 / 408-390-4748 / stampolis@aol.com

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      Chris, I spoke with a middle school teacher just yesterday who has students in her classes who cannot read, let alone write a sentence. This while other students in the same school and district are doing fine if not even great. Having an entire school that is high achieving despite demographic barriers is a great thing, but I wonder whether that's the best way to address some nontrivial segment of a district's population getting to … Read More

      Chris, I spoke with a middle school teacher just yesterday who has students in her classes who cannot read, let alone write a sentence. This while other students in the same school and district are doing fine if not even great. Having an entire school that is high achieving despite demographic barriers is a great thing, but I wonder whether that’s the best way to address some nontrivial segment of a district’s population getting to middle school and not yet knowing how to read.

  3. tmare 3 years ago3 years ago

    You neglect to mention that the requirements of the waivers are equally frustrating and equally unfunded. The waiver double downs on the high stakes testing for all students creating a system in which teacher evaluations depend on one test given in language arts and math. Duncan is not providing relief, he is changing the rules a bit but the message is the same: shut down schools and hand them over to charter corporations that demean … Read More

    You neglect to mention that the requirements of the waivers are equally frustrating and equally unfunded. The waiver double downs on the high stakes testing for all students creating a system in which teacher evaluations depend on one test given in language arts and math. Duncan is not providing relief, he is changing the rules a bit but the message is the same: shut down schools and hand them over to charter corporations that demean the profession of teaching and reduce our schools to testing and test prep centers. NCLB is bad, Rttt is actually possibly worse.

  4. David B. Cohen 3 years ago3 years ago

    I wrote about this last year, and provided some specific examples from California schools, (and one in Washington). http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/mixed-messages-meaningless-labels/ Will the architects of NCLB be held accountable for coming with something that was so deeply flawed? The whole premise of 100% proficiency was a joke from the start. What standard that's worth aiming for can be met simultaneously by every student in an American public school, and sustained in perpetuity? The idea of improvement every year is … Read More

    I wrote about this last year, and provided some specific examples from California schools, (and one in Washington).

    http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/mixed-messages-meaningless-labels/

    Will the architects of NCLB be held accountable for coming with something that was so deeply flawed? The whole premise of 100% proficiency was a joke from the start. What standard that’s worth aiming for can be met simultaneously by every student in an American public school, and sustained in perpetuity? The idea of improvement every year is worthy, but expecting the actual testing data to move in only one direction is also plainly absurd and impossible. We’re talking about huge systems made up of millions of people in constantly changing circumstances and combinations. Leaders change, teachers change, schools open and close and evolve, communities change, the tests change, the cut scores change, the curriculum and technology change…. but NCLB advocates would say I’m just making excuses. Sigh…

    Replies

    • Ann 3 years ago3 years ago

      Try hard to not focus on the 100%. Its a canard a red herring. Instead look at the proficiency levels today and see if the standard had be 50% or even lower, we didn’t cut it….in twelve years!

      • el 3 years ago3 years ago

        We could have made the standard that every child had to run a 5 minute mile. Would it be because of a failure of the teachers if 100% of the kids had not passed that standard?

  5. Ann 3 years ago3 years ago

    That whining began in 2002 as districts went kicking and screaming into NCLB. They had 12 years to achieve the illusory 100%, which was rosy to put it mildly, but should not have prevented educators from the endeavor. Its not the law its the districts, schools,teachers and students and the effort they choose to expend. There was a HUGE increase in Federal spending that went along with this law. Reading First was an excellent initiative, … Read More

    That whining began in 2002 as districts went kicking and screaming into NCLB. They had 12 years to achieve the illusory 100%, which was rosy to put it mildly, but should not have prevented educators from the endeavor. Its not the law its the districts, schools,teachers and students and the effort they choose to expend. There was a HUGE increase in Federal spending that went along with this law. Reading First was an excellent initiative, albeit fought nastily by the unions thugs and certain ed. ideologues. And anyone who dismisses the disaggregation of data I’d like to hear their reasoning for not assuring all students are making progress. I work in a district where I witnessed first hand the systematic waste, incompetence, and undermining that permeated the implementation of this law. I fear a similar outcome for CCSS.

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      Hi Ann. Although there may have been an increase in federal funding as a result of this law (although I'm not at my desk so I can't look), I don't think that necessarily means it was an appropriate level of spending to achieve the goals, nor that states didn't use that influx of money as a basis for reducing their own investment in education. When you look at the amount of title I money that a … Read More

      Hi Ann.

      Although there may have been an increase in federal funding as a result of this law (although I’m not at my desk so I can’t look), I don’t think that necessarily means it was an appropriate level of spending to achieve the goals, nor that states didn’t use that influx of money as a basis for reducing their own investment in education. When you look at the amount of title I money that a single school receives (and its federal portion of special ed funding) I think it’s pretty clear that the hundred percent proficiency goal was a nonstarter from the get-go (hopefully not intentionally so, but even that does not inspire confidence in our leaders). That is of course not to imply that districts didn’t play even more of a role in any failure to reach that goal (though when I look at some of the proficiency rates of some of our districts subgroups I don’t think there’s any way we could ever hope to achieve 100% proficiency even with a perfect central administration given cost and finding realities).
      I agree with you on the disaggregation front, however I might argue that it really doesn’t matter. Simpsons paradox is an interesting phenomenon in the statistical realm but the reality is that our society is still made up of the people that are in it. Having high-performance subgroups that are an extremely small minority of the population is not going to be the basis of a generally productive and equitable society. Similarly, having huge swaths of people in society who are unprepared for the age which we are entering is a real problem. I’m not even necessarily saying that’s true, but if it is, it should be a concern, even as we admit there has been an improvement. A few years ago I did an analysis of improvement on cst proficiency rates in our district. I was elated to notice that one of our high schools almost doubled their rate. Then I noticed in doing that they’d reached 11%. Great improvement. Not so great in absolute terms.
      Anyway, I feel weird making these arguments because I don’t even trust our testing metrics anymore. And even when they are procedurally valid, they are still culturally presumptuous. I think we need to start having more fundamental discussions about what we want our society to be and not just let market economics drive everything that happens. Good luck with that, I guess..

      • Ann 3 years ago3 years ago

        Will you explain “culturally presumptuous”?

        • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

          🙂 Presumptuous may not have been the perfect word. what I meant was that tests and even the concept of accountability can be seen as a culturally-specific phenomenon. Even the questions used can have more or less meaning depending on who designs them and who is reading them. The goal of that sentence was to point out that tests can ‘fail’ at more than one level.

    • Gary Ravani 3 years ago3 years ago

      Ann: I don't know what your background in education is, but the Reading First Initiative (RFI) was described by Rep George Miller, along the lines of being "a criminal conspiracy" after Congressional hearings into the corruption in the program. Shortly thereafter congress pretty much defunded it. During the time RFI was in place NAEP reading scores pretty much flatlined and the US dropped in the PIRLS (international reading test) from 2nd in the world to around … Read More

      Ann:

      I don’t know what your background in education is, but the Reading First Initiative (RFI) was described by Rep George Miller, along the lines of being “a criminal conspiracy” after Congressional hearings into the corruption in the program. Shortly thereafter congress pretty much defunded it. During the time RFI was in place NAEP reading scores pretty much flatlined and the US dropped in the PIRLS (international reading test) from 2nd in the world to around 14th.

      There was not a “huge increase” in funding under NCLB (after all, it was the Bush administration) and you will often hear as a criticism that NCLB was never “fully” funded. I consider it a blessing that it was never fully funded. Hard to fathom just how much damage to public education might of occurred had it been “fully funded.”

      • Ann 3 years ago3 years ago

        You are simply repeating political ranting. If you had actually read the reports you may have seen that the accusations were never substantiated. There was one email chain from one guy who resigned. The point of RF was that students MUST become fluent readers by third grade and it put emphasis on teaching reading which is not part of our teaching programs. Teachers were not then and are not now well trained in early reading … Read More

        You are simply repeating political ranting. If you had actually read the reports you may have seen that the accusations were never substantiated. There was one email chain from one guy who resigned. The point of RF was that students MUST become fluent readers by third grade and it put emphasis on teaching reading which is not part of our teaching programs. Teachers were not then and are not now well trained in early reading instruction, a problem I fear will only get worse with the muddle of Common Core. Districts wasted the funding especially early on and by the time progress was being made, political hay was made and the program was ended. I was “on the ground” during this period teaching reading as a matter of fact. Where were you?

  6. el 3 years ago3 years ago

    Since Duncan considers NCLB inflexible and counterproductive, I cannot understand why he would not want to grant a waiver to every single school if it's in his power to do so. Using it as a cudgel because he prefers a different set of inflexible and counterproductive conditions isn't really better. When you look at the scores, the achievement gap for the most part is increasing not because poor and minority students are doing worse, but because … Read More

    Since Duncan considers NCLB inflexible and counterproductive, I cannot understand why he would not want to grant a waiver to every single school if it’s in his power to do so. Using it as a cudgel because he prefers a different set of inflexible and counterproductive conditions isn’t really better.

    When you look at the scores, the achievement gap for the most part is increasing not because poor and minority students are doing worse, but because white and advantaged kids are raising their scores more. No one likes or wants the gap, but this is a different problem than one might assume from the ‘achievement gap’ headline.

    So here is my innocent question of the day. If this law has even a tiny scrap of value, surely, by now, somewhere in this nation we must have at least one Title 1 local public school with 100% proficiency. Right? Where is it? What is their secret sauce that the rest of us are too stupid, too lazy, and too unmotivated to apply?

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      Is it fair to measure it by 100% proficiency? The idea of the law could have had value independent of whether the 100% goal was anywhere near reasonable. Sorry for trying to be fair…

Template last modified: