Friday, February 17, 2006

Harvard Study Hammers NCLB

A recent Harvard study takes a dim view of the president's No Child Left Behind Act:
President Bush's No Child Left Behind education policy has in some cases benefited white middle-class children over blacks and other minorities in poorer regions, a Harvard University study showed Tuesday.

Political compromises forged between some states and the federal government have allowed schools in some predominantly white districts to dodge penalties faced by regions with larger ethnic minority populations, the study said.

Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was meant to introduce national standards to an education system where only two-thirds of teenagers graduate from high school, a proportion that slides to 50 percent for black Americans and Hispanics.

But instead of uniform standards, the policy has allowed various states to negotiate treaties and bargains to reduce the number of schools and districts identified as failing, said the study by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.

"There's a very uneven effect. There are no clear uniform standards that are governing No Child Left Behind. If one state gets one thing, another state can do something else," the study's lead author, Gail Sunderman, said in an interview.

In Washington, a bipartisan commission announced on Tuesday that it was being created to take a "hard, independent look" at the law's problems and promises, and then make recommendations to Congress before the law's expected renewal in 2007.

Under No Child Left Behind, children in every racial and demographic group in every school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and English each year. Failure to achieve annual progress can lead to sanctions against schools.

Children in poorly performing schools can switch schools if space is available. In extreme cases, schools can be closed.

But a surge in the number of schools identified as "needing improvement," including many considered top performers in their state, has stirred opposition to the law nationwide -- from a legal challenge in Connecticut to a rebellion by state legislators in staunchly Republican Utah.

The 60-page study examines letters sent by the Department of Education to all 50 states on how each state can administer the law and on their accountability plans.

Forty-nine states have taken some action to amend the law or been granted waivers to provisions in No Child Left Behind, the study said. "The problem with this approach is that it does not affect all schools equally," said Sunderman. "No two states are now subject to the same requirements."

In one example the study cites, states in rural Midwestern regions were granted extensions on deadlines to meet requirements on teacher qualifications that were unavailable to poorer rural regions with greater numbers of black Americans and ethnic minorities in southeast and southwest states.

"The policy is essentially a product of negotiation, of power and discretion, not law," Gary Orfield, director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, said in the report.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, called Harvard's study "misinformed" and "flawed". "We leave it up to the states to determine how they are going to get there. It's exactly the opposite of one-size-fits-all."
Read a related piece by The Harvard Crimson here.

Heh. I'm not surprised that the House of Spellings is less than happy with this report. I would be, if I were in the Secretary's shoes. But I think that Colby is engaging in Orwellian Newspeak when he indicated that NCLB is "exactly the opposite of one-size-fits-all," and referred to researcher Gail Sunderman's study as "misinformed."

Under the mandates of NCLB, the percentages of students who must test as "proficient" or "advanced" in the subjects of math and reading (and soon, science) increases every couple of years until 2014. That is when the law mandates that all students must achieve satisfactory test scores Or Else.

I think that the future holds more negotiations between the federal government and the several states, not less. Look for additional "special exemptions" from the more unpleasant aspects of the act as the deadline approaches, or substantial modifications in the law altogether. Don't look for the law to be repealed; it's too politically popular.
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