Experts Analyze NCLB at Askwith Education ForumBy Jill Anderson
By now many people in America — not solely educators — have figured out that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act instituted six years ago to improve primary and secondary school performance isn’t working. At the crux of NCLB are the standardized tests that have become the target of criticism and debate in education across the nation.
As NCLB faces reauthorization, Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and former national education columnist for the New York Times, and Susan Neuman, former assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under President George W. Bush, shared some of their proposals for change at last week’s Askwith Education Forum, “Beyond NCLB: Proposals to Broaden Accountability and Narrow the Achievement Gap.”
“I think the experience of NCLB drove home for many people in this country that we could not succeed in making any kind of significant progress in narrowing the achievement gap simply by holding schools accountable for higher performance,” Rothstein said.
In 2006, a statement called the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” was created and signed by a diverse, bipartisan group of individuals stating that education policy has failed and calling for a much broader approach to education by incorporating high-quality early childhood and afterschool/summer programs, and adequate healthcare for all children. (See the statement at www.boldapproach.org)
An original signer of the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” statement, Rothstein noted that it debunks the idea that schools can close or narrow the achievement gap on their own. “The statement said improving schools is essential – it didn’t duck or avoid the imperative of improving – but that we aren’t going to make any progress unless we complement school improvement with reforms in the conditions that enable children to be ready to learn in school in the social and economic conditions in which they come.”
Neuman, also a signer of the statement, wholeheartedly believed in the philosophy behind NCLB when she worked behind the scenes in Washington at the time, but can see the laws faults.
“NCLB was based on a philosophy that I challenge you to all find fault with,” Neuman said, highlighting the four pillars of that philosophy including taking advantage of research in the field of education, giving parents the right to school choice, flexibility, and accountability. However, the troubling piece of NCLB was that it didn’t work as a law, she said, noting how it was rushed through the Department of Education in four months. “It created a very poor law that can’t be implemented,” she said. “The problem is, it probably required the most regulations of any law we’ve ever had…. There is no debate about the quality of NCLB as a law — it is not good, it doesn’t work, and putting more money in it is not going to make it work.”
Rothstein and Neuman both have developed considerable recommendations to refine NCLB beyond the three focuses of the “Broader, Bolder Approach” statement.
Rothstein begins with the idea of taking a real look at what an accountability system should. “One of the tragedies of NCLB is taking an institution, which is expected to accomplish many, many things and only holding it accountable for a few things,” he said. NCLB only holds schools accountable for basic skills like math and reading rather than important skills like citizenship, responsibility, developing character, science, history, and appreciation for the arts to name a few. As a result, Rothstein said that the narrow focus of NCLB has rendered disadvantaged children in an even poorer situation then in which they started — considering the overemphasis on math and reading has created gaps in other areas of learning along the way.
After surveying a large sample of adults and educators, Rothstein established eight areas of what people are looking for from schools including basic skills, academic outcomes/ critical thinking/reasoning, appreciation arts/literature, preparation for skilled work, emotional health, physical health, good citizenship, social skills/work ethic. Then, he surveyed the adult population and officials managing K-12 to prioritize those areas based on importance. The consensus was that people weighed academics as equally and as important as the other areas.
Beyond the need for a well-balanced education and accountability, Rothstein noted that the entire accountability system also needs a redesign. In particular, he favored the National Assessment of Educational Progress test of the 1970s, which went beyond simply a quantitative approach, but also incorporated in-class inspections providing a much more true and broad accountability. “If we’re going to design an accountability system that’s true to the broad purposes of education, we need to bring back that kind of national assessment,” he said.
Neuman said that her proposed changes are lessons learned, the number one being that poverty trumps everything. “There is this horrible Matthew effect where the rich get richer and the poor inevitably get poorer,” she said, noting that the “beating the odds strategy” which mixes a concoction of no excuses, getting tough, shame, and the blame game in NCLB doesn’t work. “We need to move toward a different strategy about changing the odds for children and giving them opportunities to be successful,” she said.
Among Neuman’s proposals include targeting money where it is needed most – the 20 percent of the population of children in poverty. Then, she believes in establishing early childhood initiatives, coordinated health/social services, high intensity programs, highly trained professionals, compensatory services, and, lastly, accountability. The latter which, she said, needs close monitoring and examination. “We cannot depend on schools alone,” Neuman said, explaining her reasons for signing the “Bigger, Bolder Approach” statement. “If we do, we will fail, and we will fail the next generation of children and that is terribly tragic.”