Tatiana Sampson was thrilled to learn earlier this year that a new federal law would give her child a shot at a decent education. The law — the No Child Left Behind Act — allows parents of students at failing schools to transfer to better ones.
But when Sampson got back a list of schools she could choose from, she was first shocked then amused by what she read. Of the eight schools available to her child, the one near her home in Harlem's district 5 was no better than the current school, another was an hour's subway ride away, and the remaining six were in other boroughs, including Staten Island.
Sampson decided to stick with her child's current school. In doing this, she was responding like thousands of other parents whose children were supposed to be able to move out of failing schools. School choice, while nice in theory, has not become a reality for most families.
But while the New York City Council and much of the press have focused on school transfers, No Child Left Behind seeks to do far more than shuffle students from one school to another. The measure, signed into law by President George W. Bush in January, 2002, promises to hold states and schools accountable to improve instruction for all students.
This is not very different from what Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools Chancellor Joel Klein have vowed to do in their sweeping school reform program. But local educators and advocates worry the federal law may not provide the means or the money to deliver on its lofty promises. These shortcomings are almost guaranteed to become particularly evident in New York City, the nation's largest and most diverse public school system and one suffering from a lack of resources and hundreds of poor schools.
BEHIND THE LAW
Education is very much a state and local responsibility in the United States. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have uniform standards for graduating high school or a national curriculum. Federal money accounts for a small percentage of school funding — only 11 percent in New York City.
But the federal government has claimed some role in educating America's children. The most recent effort, No Child Left Behind, is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress passed in 1965 to aid the nation's neediest students. Title I of the act gave money to schools with high percentages of low-income students, at first targeting that money to pay for extra services for youngsters falling behind, but gradually allowing that money to be used for the schools' overall curriculum.
After a campaign in which he vowed to be the "education president," Bush and his advisers proposed No Child Left Behind. The money for poorer schools stayed, but as the law is phased in, schools will be required to perform adequately on standardized tests. The act also tacked on a couple of life lines for parents stuck in the worst schools to keep children from languishing as educators struggled to improve instruction.
In brief, the law passed by Congress states that:
- All students in failing schools, dubbed "schools in need of improvement," are entitled to transfer to better performing schools.
- Low-income students in schools that "need improvement" for the second year in a row are entitled to free tutoring, termed "supplemental educational services."
- All new teachers in schools serving lower income neighborhoods must be "highly qualified."
- Parents have a right to know the qualifications of their child's teacher.
- Victims of violent crimes have a right to transfer to a safe school.
In the coming years, the act sets out additional requirements, until by the 2013-2014 school year, 100 percent of students will have to be "proficient" in reading and math.
MAKING SCHOOLS ACCOUNTABLE
For many educators, the heart and substance of the law is that it holds schools accountable for improving education. Visitors to the federal Department of Education web site are greeted with a graph with two lines. One shows huge increases in the number of federal dollars that went toward education from 1975 to 1999, the other shows reading scores hardly budging. Accountability is about making that picture change — so more federal money translates into more kids reading on grade level.
The law takes aim at accountability from many angles, giving states a number of hoops to jump through. These include making sure that all teachers by 2006 are "highly qualified," meaning they must have at least a bachelors degree and have demonstrated — by passing a test or earning an academic degree — that they are qualified to teach reading, writing and math for elementary school and the specific subject for middle and high school. The law also requires that schools use teaching methods that research has demonstrated really help youngsters learn.
But the centerpiece of the accountability package is test scores. Based on how schools test, they can be placed on a series of lists from "schools in need of improvement" to "corrective action schools." Penalties for being a school in need of improvement include giving students the right to transfer out of the school. The state could take control of corrective action schools.
Although the law presented a monumental change for some states that did not conduct standardized tests or track school progress, New York State had been requiring standardized testing for years and putting schools in its own version of corrective action, which it called "registration review". Perhaps because of this, New York's accountability plan was among the first to win Washington's approval.
The huge shift for New York is in how scores will be reported. Starting this year, test scores have to be broken down by group, and schools will be judged not only on how well they do overall, but how their African American, Latino, low-income, English-language learners and disabled students perform. If schools cannot show they are making progress with each group, they can land on the list of needs improvement schools.
In that case, school officials must develop a plan to turn the school around and allow students to transfer out. And if a school does not make progress after five years it must be restructured — shut down, perhaps, or turned into a charter school.
Despite New York's familiarity with testing and accountability, the first list of schools in need of improvement, issued in September 2002, brought sobering news. Some 331 New York City schools — about one third the total — were on the list. The city accounted for two thirds of all the schools in the state cited as needing improvement.
Theoretically, students in all of these schools could transfer to other schools. The business of sorting out transfers was left to the community school district offices. Although some 220,000 city students were eligible to transfer under the law, only 6,000 students requested moves and, in the end, only about 1,500 students changed schools in response to the law.
A lawsuit filed by parents accused the school system of denying transfer requests, failing to notify parents of their right to transfer their children, and of not having a coherent policy for dealing with requests and transferring students.
Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed the first efforts to fulfill this requirement were a disaster. And schools Chancellor Joel Klein told the New York Times that the department "did not meet that challenge" of providing transfers.
Klein vowed to do a better job of following the federal law. The city Department of Education would run the show, and this time they would get it right. And indeed the department mounted an awesome effort to contact every parent whose child was entitled to a transfer. The schools mailed letters to 220,000 parents, stuffed kids' backpacks with notices and matched student needs to schools with available seats.
In the end, each of the 20,000 parents who requested transfers received a list of eight schools that they could ask their child to attend. Of those parents, 10,000 opted to take a transfer although it will not be clear until September how many will actually go through with it.
Even critics agree the city did a "much better" job — but not good enough, according to City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, chair of the council Education Committee, who says that not enough parents knew about their right to get a transfer because the city failed to get the word out and to make the parents' options clear.
An investigation by the Daily News in February found that school officials frequently gave parents incorrect information — saying, for example, that a school was not on the "needs improvement" list when, in fact, it was. Some were unable to provide information in Spanish; others would try to talk parents out of requesting a transfer.
Moskowitz has drawn up a list of things the department should do to improve the transfer process. And she scheduled hearings and "a speak-out" on the issue on June 17 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at City Hall.
Parents who do not accept the transfer option can request what is called Supplemental Educational Services tutoring. According to the Department of Education, as of the end of 2002, some 28,000 students had received this additional help.
TESTS AND MONEY
Even if transfers and tutoring go smoothly, it will not end the controversy over No Child Left Behind. Many see the law as fine in theory but flawed in practice, lacking what it takes to make real change in New York or elsewhere.
The law's supporters such as Laurie Hall Armstrong of Councilmember Moskowitz's staff believes that the crux of the law — publicizing testing information â€“ will spur parents to demand better schools. "There's no way to fix [the problem] if you don't know what is going on," she says.
Some critics fault the entire notion of giving such weight to standardized tests, saying they are too limited. Skeptics such as Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, say teachers can raise student scores by teaching to the test but may not be fundamentally improving student learning. Of the federal law, Neill has said, "I like to call it the 'No Child Left Untested But Many Children Left Behind Act.'"
Whatever the merits of the test themselves, the federal law assumes that its carrots and sticks, such as the transfer provisions, will give educators an incentive to encourage their students to perform well, an idea based on the competitive model of the private sector. Doubters such as Noreen Connell of Education Priorities Panel, a local advocacy group, wonder whether "shame" will keep principals in line and whether even the most talented principal can turn around a school where there is huge need and not a lot of funds.
Eventually, says Joe Colletti of the United Federation of Teachers (the city's teacher union), some otherwise successful schools will be put on the "needs improvement" list because they fail to make progress for their English language learners or special needs students. That, he says, could punish those schools instead of helping them meet the needs of all their students.
The law's most ironic pitfall is that the more it focuses on test scores, the more it may make test scores meaningless. So far New York appears to have resisted the effort to dumb things down. But in other states — Connecticut for one — educators are relaxing their definition of what it means to be proficient. One can only expect the pressure to do this to mount as the countdown continues to the 2013-2014 requirement of universal proficiency.
Of the potential wrenches in the works, however, the biggest may be money. According to Education Week, the National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated that it will cost states a total of $1 billion each year to comply with the testing requirements. Money for the promised tutoring services and teacher training could also be tight.
New York City will receive $376 million less for the federal law this year than it was promised when the act passed, according to Representative Anthony Weiner. Although the city still gets $141 million more than it did last year for a total of $756 million, the shortfall in expected funds means that schools are asked to be doing more while their pockets are being pinched. In New York City — and many other financially strapped communities across the country — the city and state do not have the money to pour into meeting a new set of requirements.
The good news in New York is that No Child Left Behind's call for accountability comes at the same time that Mayor Bloomberg has gained control of the city's schools, making the public education buck stop at the mayor's office. The federal law can provide a framework for improvement, but it will be up to the mayor and governor to make it work for the city's schools.
As Ross Weiner of the Educational Trust, which works to promote high educational achievement, says, the next few years will present a challenge for public schools, a chance to "step up to the plate and show what public education can do." If the public officials and educators fail to rise to the challenge, at best our schools will stay status quo. At worst, the belief that public education cannot work will become more widespread, setting the stage for more radical reform.
No Child Left Behind Primer
(From Education Week)
Julia Kamin is a reporter with Inside Schools, a web site published by Advocates for Children.