Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs

By Bracey, Gerald W. | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs


Bracey, Gerald W., Phi Delta Kappan


SAID Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, "I should be handing out mood-altering pharmaceuticals, those that deal with depression." What had brought Finn down were presentations by Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools, Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University, Paul Manna of the College of William & Mary, and Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation. These four reports opened the conference "Fixing Failing Schools: Are the Tools in the NCLB Toolkit Working?" Finn had co-organized the conference with Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For supporters of No Child Left Behind, antidepressants seemed more appropriate than the coffee and cakes actually available.

Casserly reported on how the four tools in NCLB's toolkit--the choice option, supplemental educational services (SES), corrective action, and restructuring--were operating in 36 cities. Only 2% of the eligible students in the cities were using the choice option afforded by NCLB. Just 16% were receiving supplemental services. In districts where the district itself could be an SES provider, 29% of the eligible students received SES, but in districts where the district was not a provider, only 11% received services. Casserly characterized the impact of supplemental services as ranging from modest to harmful.

Corrective actions and restructuring usually involved technical assistance and professional development and only rarely involved a state takeover or the conversion of a school to charter status. The whole operation, said Casserly, had become an exercise in compliance, compliance with sanctions that were poorly designed to increase achievement.

Henig focused on SES, pointing out that this particular tool arose from political maneuvering between and within the parties, not from considerations about how kids learn. SES was supposed to appease conservatives over the loss of the voucher provisions. SES looks a bit like vouchers, goes to individuals not schools, and involves the private sector. To "old Democrats," SES was attractive because it's not vouchers, avoids confrontation with teacher unions, and actually expands public school responsibility. To "new Democrats," SES offered a chance to demonstrate that Dems were not anti-market.

Henig noted that for political scientists, policies imply theories. However, he could not identify any theory implied by SES.

Manna looked at how the tools were working at the state level. His conclusion: not well. Final information on AYP (adequate yearly progress), for instance, most commonly appeared in August, and, as of late October 2006, seven states had not yet released AYP figures. With data related to choice and SES arriving in the already hectic period when schools are cranking up to start another year, the information overload on districts is overwhelming.

While most states have done a good job of delivering basic information about SES providers, in 15% of the cases, no phone number was listed for providers. Descriptions about providers have often proved difficult to read, and parents have had trouble finding the information most relevant to them: what would be provided, how often, what information the provider would send back to the parents, and how the provider would be held accountable. Later in the conference, it was noted that state departments of education were too severely understaffed to deal with this information well.

Manna said that it was virtually impossible to know what was happening at the state level in terms of corrective action or restructuring.

Petrilli asked if the problems arose just from poor implementation or if there was something inherently problematic with the law. Some of both was his answer. But he did declare that, as far as choice and SES were concerned, the law was "unimplementable." First, he argued, the law contains "perverse incentives" for districts--to inform parents of choice and SES options costs the districts money. …

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