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Questions for the Next President

Convening a Videoconference with Education Leaders

While issues of national security and economic policy seem likely to dominate the 2004 presidential election, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has already assumed extraordinary importance in this campaign. Not since 1980, when Republican candidate Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish the relatively new federal Department of Education, has education figured so prominently in a presidential contest. Ironically, it is President George W. Bush, Reagan's conservative heir, who led the charge to the single greatest expansion of the federal role since the 1960s. NCLB legislation will remain a lightning rod throughout the national campaigns for the White House.

On one level, the current controversy swirling around NCLB is surprising. After all, the Bush administration jointly drafted the bill with a powerful group of liberal and conservative lawmakers. The bill's aim is to raise standards and performance for all students and to hold schools accountable for their results'was enacted with broad bipartisan support. That surprise is muted, however, by the fact that NCLB's sponsors largely failed to consult with those charged with implementing the ambitious law. As a result, there has been significant pushback from the field, virtually from the date of enactment.

Brushfires have ignited within both parties in response to the federal law's mandate for a one-size-fits-all school accountability plan. In most cases, states had previously defined their own learning standards, developed their own assessments to measure progress, and established their own definitions of academic proficiency. Now, they say, their progress is senselessly at stake.

More than a dozen state school chiefs recently authored a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, urging him to allow them greater flexibility in implementing NCLB. Several Republican-controlled state legislatures have gone so far as to pass resolutions denouncing NCLB. Secretary Paige became so frustrated with the ceaseless opposition from the National Education Association that he referred to it as a terrorist organization." His remark was greeted less than enthusiastically by the nation's teachers. A hasty apology from the White House followed.

In order to help readers understand the emerging presidential debate over NCLB, Ed. magazine hosted a videoconference this spring in HGSE's Learning Technologies Center with five national leaders in education.

In order to help readers understand the emerging presidential debate over NCLB, Ed. magazine hosted a videoconference this spring in HGSE's Learning Technologies Center with five national leaders in education: Mitchell Chester, Ed.D.'91, Assistant Superintendent for Accountability, Ohio Department of Education; Karen Mapp, Ed.D.'99, Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement, Boston Public Schools; William Moloney, Ed.D.'79, Colorado Commissioner of Education; Jennifer O'Day, Ed.D.'73, Principal Research Scientist, American Institutes for Research; and Manuel Rivera, Ed.D.'94, Superintendent, Rochester (NY) City School District. It was my great pleasure to moderate the discussion. An excerpt follows.

Robert Schwartz: Imagine that it's December and the presidential election is over. You're invited to a meeting with the President-elect, and the subject is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). What feedback do you have to offer?
Manny Rivera

Manny Rivera: There are certainly provisions in the law that ought to be changed. I'm not necessarily convinced that there should be testing in every subject and at every grade level every year. That, in and of itself, can present a whole new burden. There ought to be some flexibility in how districts are able to track the progress of their students in meeting standards, but not necessarily at such a prescriptive level.

The President of the United States needs to make sure that there is sufficient funding behind the mandate. I would also ask him to provide appropriate funding to support the programs and practices that we know will make a difference, especially in urban communities. It's not rocket science out there. There are certain things that we do in schools that support good quality education and that support children when they're out of school and on weekends. These include reducing class size; providing quality afterschool and Saturday programs; summer trimesters for our secondary students; ways of supporting intervention at a much earlier grade level; and pre-kindergarten.
Jennifer O'Day

Jennifer O'Day: A lot of my work is with low-performing schools, specifically, looking at federal and state policies and programs that assist and hold accountable low-performing schools. Too much of the assistance that was provided through the law was spread too thinly to have the kind of impact to help schools build the capacity that they needed to improve instruction and see long-term gains in student achievement. That's one of my concerns.

We just completed an evaluation of the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program, which is part of the Public Schools Accountability Act here in California. One of the things that we found is that districts matter a lot. So, we need to pay a lot more attention to the role of districts in assisting low-performing schools.

The targeting of assistance is not going to adequately reach and improve the schools that have been struggling the most.

In my discussions with educators across the country, I have heard a lot of agreement with the spirit of the law. That is, students of color and poor students need to be included in the accountability system, and they need to have the opportunity to achieve to standards. And there needs to be emphasis on and support for high-quality teaching. Things get difficult, however, around the particular details of what that looks like. If we are in a situation where the details of the law end up identifying over half of the public schools as being low-performing or failing, then we've got a problem. The targeting of assistance is not going to adequately reach and improve the schools that have been struggling the most.

Mitchell Chester: Most of the states made a commitment to standards for students that predates No Child Left Behind. What No Child Left Behind did was mandate the yearly measurement of progress toward meeting those standards and then to report the results publicly.

Very often, responses to accountability and the No Child Left Behind law are defined by the sense of urgency with which one hopes to change the current educational system. In Ohio, and in many other places, the people most resistant to accountability measures are very often employed by the education establishment: They're resistant to having inferences drawn about their effectiveness. But people outside the system'that is, parents and community members'share a great sense of urgency about pushing the system in a new direction.
Bill Moloney

Bill Moloney: Let me jump in here. I think we have to go back to the genesis of the law. I'll be a little hyperbolic, but essentially here's what [the legislators] said: "The goals must be ridiculously high, because, if they are not, our children will be left behind again." That led directly to the notion that 100 percent of all subgroups should be at proficiency within 12 years.

At one level, this goal is unrealistic. But I think what was being said by our minority community is that anything less would gut the law at the outset. It's very significant that amid the cacophony of criticism directed at this bill in this political year, a letter was written by 100 prominent minority superintendents that, in effect, said to Rod Paige, "Do not let go of this."

In Colorado, five years of testing have seen Anglo students achieve at twice the level of African Americans. When the metro dailies picked that up, that drove change for minority kids in these communities. When I speak in our black churches, to our NAACP, to La Raza, and to our coalitions about closing the achievement gap, these communities have a very different take than the education community. They say, "At last."

We know from the research that parent engagement at home is very important and that parent participation level in schools is very important.

Karen Mapp: I agree that many parents see this as a way to finally hold schools accountable'especially parents in communities of color. They also feel they are not getting enough support or enough information. There are not enough resources coming down to the state and districts' levels that really help them to help their own children. We know from the research that parent engagement at home is very important and that parent participation level in schools is very important. But something was lost from the Clinton administration, which provided a lot of supportive materials to parents about their children's reading and math. There was also a lot of information on how to empower parents to be engaged in the school's decision-making and governance. We seemed to have backed away from that.

Robert Schwartz: What I'm hearing is, "Mend, don't end," to use the old Clinton line. However, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Vermont have joined Democratic counterparts from a handful of other states in launching measures that oppose provisions of the two-year-old NCLB law. In January, a House committee in Utah unanimously advanced a bill to opt out of the law and forfeit at least $103 million. Are any of you seeing a similar kind of grassroots, brushfire opposition? And how seriously should we take that?

Manny Rivera: It's probably unpopular for me to say this, but my guess is that 100 percent of those communities that voted to opt out of NCLB and not receive federal dollars have significant numbers of Latino and African-American policymakers. And, in these cases, it is absolutely correct for the federal government to take a role. I just wish some of those communities could have more support.

No school superintendent or community likes to have to go out and report, "All my kids are doing fine. However, the Latino children are not meeting standards, or the African-American children in my community are not." Nonetheless, the public reporting (as specific as it is now calling for) of subgroups, is important.

We're seeing the surfacing of tons of data, much of it exceedingly embarrassing.

Bill Moloney: I think Manny has hit some tremendously important points. While it's fashionable to laugh at adequate yearly progress, and say, "Oh my God, this is all bean counting," there's a powerful engine of data behind all of this. We're seeing the surfacing of tons of data, much of it exceedingly embarrassing. For example, I'm going to meet our governor on Wednesday, and he's very fixated on the fact that in 1992, only 15 percent of Hispanic males were going on to college. Ten years later, that's dropped to 9 percent. Those are the kinds of facts around the learning deficit that are very embarrassing. But I would submit to you that, absent embarrassment, you will see no change. Change is nothing less than a national, moral imperative, and we must not abandon it.

Karen Mapp: I think this hits the nail right on the head: We've got to have direct conversations about race. Here in Boston, we are very serious about raising our standards. We're very serious about NCLB. But I've been in some tough conversations with the other deputies and with Superintendent Payzant about where to direct limited resources. We have a number of schools that are corrective action schools at this time, but we also have some schools that may be on that list next year. So, where do we go first? That's been very hard.

Mitchell Chester: What the accountability system ds, and what No Child Left Behind ds, is create some transparency in the system and put those of us in the education profession in a position of having to confront the realities about the kind of achievement we're accomplishing with kids'especially kids from groups that traditionally have not been well-served by schools. That's uncomfortable, but it's an opportunity to rethink the system, which is very positive.

I'll give you an example: annual testing. Annual testing creates a sense of transparency for parents about how their children are doing from one year to another. We can say everything we want about how much [credibility] we should invest in a one-time test, but some of the most poignant discussions I've had are with parents who didn't find out until their child was in the seventh or eighth grade that she or he was way behind'not reading up to par, not doing math up to par, and not prepared to take on high-school-level work. Often, those parents found out because of an achievement test. Up to that point, every message they had gotten from the schools was, "Your child is doing OK. Your child is getting passing grades, is doing fine, and is being promoted from grade to grade."

Jennifer O'Day: I think these issue of transparency and even of embarrassment are absolutely essential to improving the educational system. In fact, in our work looking at the accountability systems in both Chicago and in California, we found that these systems were incredibly successful in getting the attention of people'parents, community members, state educators'to the improvement of achievement, particularly to the achievement of traditionally underserved kids. I absolutely agree with that.

A first step is drawing attention to the weaknesses in the system and its lack of success in serving large numbers of kids.

The question is, what do you do once you're embarrassed? Where do you go with that? What kinds of resources do you have available? What kinds of capacities exist at the school level? What kinds of capacities exist at the district level to really support school improvements? A first step is drawing attention to the weaknesses in the system and its lack of success in serving large numbers of kids. But the next steps are absolutely essential'of actually providing the resources and the ability to do something about it.

I also wanted to make the observation that this conversation has focused on No Child Left Behind. Because this piece of legislation has so captured the attention of people, it is an opportunity, but, in some ways, it can also be a trap, in that we begin to think only in terms of reaction to the legislation. It is important to think more broadly.

Robert Schwartz: It could be that this is so complex and ultimately so crucial to the goals educators have around both achievement and equity, that sticking with this one piece of legislation'and the seven cents on the dollar that the feds put into state budgets'and trying to get this right is more important than anything else we could be doing in the K-12 arena. That's a really useful note on which to bring this to a close. Again, thank you all. This has really been a very rich conversation.

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