Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Inflating the Life Rafts of NCLB: Making Public School Choice and Supplemental Services Work for Students in Troubled Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Inflating the Life Rafts of NCLB: Making Public School Choice and Supplemental Services Work for Students in Troubled Schools

Article excerpt

NCLB's remedies for students whose schools have been identified as needing improvement may not be working as intended. Mr. Hess and Mr. Finn recommend some midcourse corrections that could help ensure that the law's promise is fulfilled.

TO NO ONE'S surprise, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has become a political football in this election season. Amidst the heated rhetoric and impassioned claims, it can be easy to forget that NCLB is no one thing but rather an awkward compendium of many disparate pieces. While public officials are pressed to render absolute judgments -- that NCLB is a wondrous advance or a malign mistake -- observers and educators must recognize that anything as unwieldy and complex as this law will inevitably yield mixed results.

Sorting through those mixed results requires sifting through the law's many elements and learning how each of them works. In this piece, we turn our attention to the first remedies prescribed by NCLB for children in schools identified as needing improvement: the supplemental educational services and public school choice provisions, both of which constitute the choice-based element of the NCLB design. These provisions are a limited, but crucial, component of NCLB. They are the life rafts that Congress is throwing to children in our most troubled schools, and they are also hammers intended to pound districts into taking the hard steps that are so essential to improving those schools.

Less than three years after passage, it's premature to gauge NCLB's "success" -- whether it has helped or hindered student achievement. But it's not too early to ask whether various provisions are being conscientiously and constructively implemented or appear likely to work as intended. If yes, then those provisions of NCLB should be given time to work while being closely watched and objectively evaluated. If no, then federal policy makers should consider making midcourse corrections in these elements of the law. Such steps, taken at an early stage when states and districts are still formulating policies, could prove far easier than efforts at a later date to alter ingrained practices and entrenched assumptions.

Nothing is gained by avoiding the question of how the law is working or innocently assuming that well-intentioned efforts will suffice. As veteran policy analyst Michael Kirst has noted, it took more than a decade and multiple legislative and administrative adjustments before the Title I program in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) really functioned as intended.1 That's the norm for ambitious new federal programs: they rarely work smoothly at the outset. Instead, they bring a raft of unforeseen problems, unintended consequences, unwanted loopholes, and unworkable features.

In fact, NCLB is vastly more ambitious than the original ESEA. The original Title I program sought to spread additional money to established institutions and interests. ESEA's mechanisms were purely fiscal, and the main implementation challenges were how to get the new money to its intended recipients and ensure that it was spent in permissible ways. Though that entailed complex calculations and intricate procedures, in reality the original Title I program nestled reasonably well into existing arrangements. By contrast, NCLB's goals, mechanisms, and remedies do not fit neatly into the status quo. One may fairly say they ask states and school districts to engage in unfamiliar, even unnatural, acts.

At NCLB's heart is the insistence that public schools annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math and that every state measure whether its public schools are making "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward universal pupil proficiency in those two core subjects. Schools must show steady improvement in every grade and for multiple demographic groups. If they do not, various sanctions and interventions are supposed to follow in a scripted sequence. …

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