Helping to understand what went wrong with No Child Left Behind

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There’s something beautifully soothing about a fact – even (or perhaps especially) if we’re not sure what it means. ~Daniel J. Boorstin

Skip this post if you hate technical details and numbers. The following information is helpful in understanding why education has become such an unwieldy mess in the recent past, but it’s also filled with historical details relating to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Understanding the federal government’s contribution to our progressively-more-standardized educational system may be useful, but it’s probably optional in terms of grasping the problems that standardization poses for our diverse – and diversifying — student bodies.

The following information describes the now-defunct federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and its many requirements for districts, schools and teachers. NCLB has been in the process of being quietly dismantled or at least adapted, since we hit the final target year in 2014 for a set of improvements that never happened, but the federal government just signed NCLB’s death warrant yesterday. There was no chance from the beginning that this law could work, but to understand what is happening in education today, it is advantageous to understand NCLB. The current administration had been granting numerous waivers to states that failed to hit targets and I imagine they got tired of the paperwork. More than a decade into the most ambitious education program ever attempted in this country, we just scrapped all those efforts with a few pen strokes.

Let’s look at a little history, though. The history is instructive. That history also been destructive as well.

From the June 13, 2014 Huffington Post:
No Child Left Behind Waivers Granted To 33 U.S. States, Some with Strings Attached Posted: 07/19/2012 12:01 am Updated: 08/13/2012 11:04 am
By Thursday, the Obama administration will have waived 32 states and Washington, D.C. from No Child Left Behind — sort of.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is gearing up to announce that Arizona, Washington, D.C., Oregon, South Carolina, Kansas, Michigan, and Mississippi are now exempt from No Child Left Behind’s rigorous test requirements through the administration’s waivers. In a Wednesday call with reporters, Duncan called the process “a nationwide bipartisan movement toward next-generation education reform.”
But eight of the 32 NCLB waivers granted to states are conditional, meaning those states have not entirely satisfied the administration’s requirements and part of their plans are under review.

No Child Left Behind has been used for leverage by the federal government since its inception. Even after the target year 2014, when all subgroups tested were supposed to test successfully, that leverage continued since the law gave the government the right to effectively punish failing schools.

As a law, No Child Left Behind had real teeth in it. The law’s standards and test requirements became a condition of receiving federal Title I grant money, the largest source of federal funding to state and local school districts. Title I grants are funneled through states to local school districts, primarily to help districts with high percentages of low-income families and disadvantaged children. For the fiscal year 2014, Title I funds amount to $14 billion of federal leverage. No Child Left Behind has been running alongside Race to the Top, another federal program which is only optional if a state wants to potentially leave behind its chunk of this new $4 billion program.

With minor variations, NCLB requirements were the same across the United States. Each state had to test annually. Each state had to show that students were improving. NCLB did not require a graduation exit exam. That would have been counterproductive, I suspect, since the plan underlying NCLB also included increasing graduation rates. The names of tests changed – and the tests themselves varied in their content – but the requirements were essentially similar. I apologize if this section is inescapably filled with numerical data. NCLB was a government program dedicated to a large amount of data collection, so there is no way to understand the program without spending a little time with the data.

Schools were required to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or face increasingly severe penalties. Adequate Yearly Progress was determined by NCLB and was the minimum level of proficiency that school districts and schools were required to achieve each year. AYP did not remain a sitting target. Every year, school scores were expected to improve. To make AYP, a school and district also needed to meet the required participation rate and annual measurable objectives in language arts and math.

The below chart shows the original Alaska plan, which culminated in all students meeting or exceeding expectations on the state test 2013-2014.

Annual Measurable Objective (AMO)
AMO is the percent of students who must be proficient on the above exams as required by the state. Not only must the school as a whole meet the AMO, but each specified subgroup of students must also meet the AMO. The goal of NCLB was to have all students be proficient in language arts and math by 2013-2014. These are the AMO’s for Alaska by year and subject:

School Year                  AMO for Language                   AMO for Mathematics
2001-02                           64.03%                                         54.86%
2002-03                           64.03%                                         54.86%
2003-04                           64.03%                                         54.86%
2004-05                           71.48%                                         57.61%
2005-06                           71.48%                                         57.61%
2006-07                           71.48%                                         57.61%
2007-08                           77.18%                                         66.09%
2008-09                           77.18%                                         66.09%
2009-10                           77.18%                                         66.09%
2010-11                           82.88%                                         74.57%
2011-12                           88.58%                                         83.05%
2012-13                           94.28%                                         91.53%
2013-14                           100%                                            100%

Californian targets were originally set up so they would increase slowly at first and then would go up rapidly in 2007-08, at which point they were to continue to increase yearly by about 11 percentage points until 100% of Californian students met or exceeded state standards on the 2013-14 state test. (All national students were expected to meet or exceed expectations on their state’s standardized test in the year 2013-14.) The California schedule of Annual Measurable Objective increases was supposedly established with the belief that Californian schools would experience greater academic gains in later years after they had adjusted to issues such as “alignment of instruction with state content standards.”

The above plan is so out of alignment with actual reality that I am filled with a deep, cynical admiration for those California’s leaders who were bold enough to put it on paper. My best guess is that California’s educational leaders knew they could not hit the required targets and so set their goals low at first so they could make NCLB goals in the beginning, hoping the whole program would go away by the time they were somehow supposed to achieve 11% improvement in a year and eventually have 100% of students passing the state test. Asking any state to improve test scores by a full 11% across multiple years is absurd. The odds of that state establishing Martian colonies are probably equally good.

Contrary to what some government leaders appear to believe, America’s teachers have not been sitting around scratching themselves and surfing the internet. Most have been teaching vigorously. That “11%” represents a huge improvement in scores, since the tests themselves get harder as the years progress and students must first learn the new, harder material before they can begin to tackle that 11%. The requirement essentially demanded that California’s students make over a year’s standard academic progress in one year over multiple years – including special education students, bilingual students, students who move frequently, and those students who are acknowledged slow learners.

Under NCLB, each school and district had to meet the annual objectives in order to make annual yearly progress targets. Further, NCLB demanded that all numerically significant subgroups meet targets, significant having been defined as at least 100 pupils or at least 50 students who make up 15% or more of the total school enrollment. These groups included up to eight possible ethnic groups, including “two or more races.” Racial/Ethnic: Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and multi_ethnic; Economically Disadvantaged: Students on free or reduced lunch; Students with Disabilities: Students with IEPs; and Limited English Proficient students. Other groups required to hit targets were socioeconomically disadvantaged students, English-language learners and disabled students. If any one of these subgroups didn’t meet math and English targets, the school or district failed to make AYP. Subgroups of 20 or fewer were not considered for AYP determinations.

NCLB required that 95% students—and 95% of each significant subgroup—participate in each test. Absenteeism in only one subgroup could prevent the school or district from making AYP. Schools also needed to meet one more indicator: High schools were required to graduate at a certain percentage of students – for example, Alaska’s target was at least 55.58% of their students– while elementary and middle schools had to maintain an 85% attendance rate. The actual graduation targets varied. Colorado’s graduation rate target was 55.3 percent in 2002 with a planned target of 65 percent in 2014, while Maine started at 60 percent in 2002, planning progress to 75 percent in 2014. Several states amended their AYP definitions in 2006 and 2007 to permit “progress” toward the attainment of graduation targets, rather than actual attainment of those targets. ( )

Consequences of not meeting AYP for Schools Receiving Title I Funds: Without going into tedious detail, first parents were alerted and the school had to make a plan to improve and seek outside help. If the situation continued the following year, the school was to notify parents. The school then needed to develop and implement a school improvement plan to submit to its district for approval. The district submitted the plan to state and county departments of education. (How many new government employees and/or contractors ended up working on these plans? I imagine a small country’s worth.) The school was required to provide supplemental services to students who could not hit the targets. If the situation continued for another year, the school was required to offer a choice of an alternative school if one was available.

At this point, the consequences begin to border on Draconian in nature:

Level 4 Corrective Actions
In addition to continuing all the requirements for Level 3, the district is required to take at least one of the following actions: replacement of staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP, implementation of a new curriculum, significantly decrease management authority at the school, appoint one or more outside experts to advise the school, extend for that school the length of the school year or school day, or restructure the internal organization of the school.
(Incidentally, I believe that provision involving lengthening the school year or day would be an effective remedy in many struggling schools, but that remedy is very seldom used due to the high costs involved.)

Level 5 Restructuring
In addition to continuing all the requirements for Level 4, the district is required to prepare a plan to carry out one of the following alternative governance arrangements: reopen the school as a public charter school, replace all or most of the staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP, enter into a contract with a private management company, transfer operation of the school to the department, if agreed to by the department, or any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement. If the school remains in restructuring status the following year, the district must implement the restructuring plan at the beginning of the school year following the plan’s creation.
( )

When NCLB arrived at the projected 100% year, America’s schools were not close to achieving the original targets. The federal government then gave “waivers” to states that could not make those impossible targets, waivers with a substantial number of strings attached. Nevertheless, by that time, with or without waivers, NCLB had legitimized standardized testing as a way of evaluating schools, teachers and American education as a whole. Data-driven instruction and teaching to the test had become the norm, and for the most part a de facto requirement.

To present a glimpse of the problem posed by this test-based approach, let’s consider one “failing” school that appeared to be doing an awesome job of educating its students. Lincoln school in Berwyn, Illinois increased test scores from 60% to 83% of students meeting or exceeding targets, all the while undergoing a change that added 25% more Hispanic students into the testing pool. Yet the school failed by government standards, year after year. Many of the best schools in the United States failed to make AYP and ended up on watch or warning lists. Certain subgroups historically underperform other subgroups academically — that’s practically the definition of special education — but the failure of a group will lead to the failure of a school.

Put simply and informally, I can find many cases that show the government requirements were completely laughable – but if you’re a teacher in a school that had been failing to meet improvement targets, those requirements are no laughing matter. Despite its superior performance, Lincoln was supposed to put in many hours on an improvement plan to submit to its district and to the government. My own school had to make such a plan. I spent many afternoons on a Building Leadership Committee during the 2010 – 2012 school years, working to meet government requirements for failing schools. I also spent numerous days out of the classroom helping to make a 79-point state plan designed to show we were addressing our NCLB failure. On those days, I was forced to leave my students with a sub – or worse, with no sub because so many teachers were out making improvement plans that the district did not have enough subs. On one of those first days of improvement a few years ago, our school had NO subs since the substitute pool had bypassed the middle school for the safer havens of elementary and high school education. I don’t know how many elementary and high school teachers also had no subs. I know that six teachers from my school were out with no one officially slated to take their classes.

Across America, in Illinois and other states, teachers and administrators have been missing class time to deal with the fallout from failing to hit targets. Let’s add that loss of instructional time to time directly sucked away by testing itself and related test prep. I was professionally developed out of the classroom during one of those Building Leadership Team years for about three school weeks. That’s one-twelfth of the entire 36 week students’ school year. A handful of coworkers were out with me on these many learning opportunities – their classes also in the hands of a coworker or sub.
I left behind my diverse classroom so I could be professionally developed. On those days, little or no “differentiation” occurred, since my sub plans were one-packet-fits-all, with a note to the sub that students could work together in groups. I hoped the sub would actually use my sub materials. I hoped the stronger students would help the weaker students. I hoped the weaker students would think about the readings and not simply mindlessly copy from academically stronger friends. On bad days, with no subs, I hoped the coworker who took my class would use my sub materials. Doubled-up classes are distracting and distracted. It’s tough to present two lessons at once.

Again, I ended up teaching exactly the same material to my many different students, and without the being able to supervise their efforts. While I can’t exactly call these days lost, I certainly consider them substandard learning opportunities. For that matter, time spent on an improvement plan cannot be dedicated to perfecting the next day’s lesson. All across America, teachers and administrators have had similar experiences — especially teachers and administrators in financially- and academically-disadvantaged districts.

One ugly underbelly to NCLB that seldom has seemed to be discussed struck me often in the last few years. The fall-out from this law hit the kids who most needed help the hardest. Even when financially prosperous districts were forced to create improvement plans, those districts had the funds to hire help to prepare plans without compromising administrative oversight in other areas. Those districts could find subs for teachers who had to help with the improvement plans. NCLB affected education in all schools, but its effects were felt far more intensely in schools with very limited resources. Poor schools, with no budget for adding new staff, could not delegate academic and instructional activities to others in order to focus on meeting government requirements. Frequently, in our least fortunate zip codes, academic and instructional activities were sacrificed outright so that limited personnel could fulfill mandatory legal requirements that trumped the actual teaching of children. Time was stolen from children in these financially-disadvantaged districts as administrators and teachers trudged to meetings designed to “improve” already beleaguered schools.

The losers were the children left behind.