The Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and Avenues for Improvement
President Obama has an immense task before him. In this upcoming year, he will be responsible for the long overdue reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. This act is based on the standards-based reform model which is comprised of three main principles: state-level content standards in core areas, corresponding tests, and accountability for results (Smith & O’Day, 1990). The act sets a definition of adequate yearly progress (AYP) that schools must meet. AYP is measured by student achievement on state-specific standardized tests. States and districts are held accountable for students’ performance, and if schools fail to meet AYP, there are certain measures that are taken. NCLB has both strengths and weaknesses, but as the reauthorization of the legislation is approaching, it is important to think of how it can be improved so that the next act will do an even greater job at improving America’s schools. There are a number of different reform practices that are crucial to include in the future law that involve changes at a variety of levels. These practices vary greatly, but they all share the common goal of improving the achievement and progress of all students.
The first issue that needs to be dealt with is one of the main points of controversy of the original No Child Left Behind Act: high-stakes testing. Currently there is no strong evidence to say whether these tests are improving or damaging student learning. One of the reasons for the difficulty of compiling evidence is because there are 50 different assessments and 50 different sets of content standards that those assessments are based on. Varying state tests limit the validity of comparing state data (Clarke, 2007). Different state tests and standards are also completely unnecessary. Do we want a child in Massachusetts to have different knowledge and skills when they graduate from high school than a child in Georgia? Absolutely not. With the exception of perhaps detailed state history or local events, we want all students to finish high school with the same set of skills and the same basic knowledge sets. In addition, states must pay absurd amounts of money to revise their standards and to create tests. What is the point of having this done 50 times when the federal government can simply pay to have it done once?
Therefore, one proposal is that in the reauthorization of NCLB the mandate of state-wide standards and tests should turn into a mandate for nation-wide standards and tests (Cohen & Moffitt, 2009). In fact, a national assessment already exists. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is used with national samples of students, and it is seen as a much better measure of national trends in achievement since all students are taking the same exam. The states would have little work to do other than simply to adopt a new test and new standards. The tests mandated by NCLB have not been a success for this exact reason: “critics contend that… NCLB failed to make standards and tests effective and that only national standards and tests can do the job” (Cohen & Moffitt, 2009, p. 12).
However, changing standards and tests brings up a problem. How is a teacher supposed to teach material that they were perhaps not trained to teach? This question brings me into my next suggestion: improved teacher education. Changing the standards and assessments will provide a great opportunity to change teacher education as well (Cohen & Moffitt, 2009). Teacher education today is quite varied, and there are many programs that do not fully prepare teachers to have their own classrooms. One reason for this is perhaps because the student curriculum is not taught in depth since curriculums differ by state. If national standards were established, every single teacher education school across the country would know exactly what all teachers must teach and could then focus on that. Teachers would then enter schools not only knowing their subject and general rules of pedagogy, but they would be familiar with what the students must learn and some effective techniques of teaching this information.
Another reason why improved teacher education is important is related to my next point. It is a known fact now that smaller classes are more effective than larger ones. They allow the teacher to give more individualized attention to the students and the students feel more connected to their teacher. However, simply mandating smaller classes is not the solution since that may lead to negative unintended consequences. For example, when California experimented with smaller classes the result was an influx of poorly-qualified teachers (Raudenbush, 2009). Smaller class-sizes cannot be mandated unless there is a supply of highly-qualified teachers ready to take over the extra classrooms. Hopefully the improved teacher education, along with other incentives to train new teachers, will allow smaller classes to become a reality.
Yet even some teachers who are well-qualified are still not helping the education system as well as they could. Raudenbush discusses the phenomenon of “privatized, idiosyncratic practice” (2009, p.172). This refers to the isolation and autonomy that a teacher faces when she simply closes her classroom door. Regardless of what is going on in the education world, the teacher is the one that has the sole responsibility of teaching the subject matter to the students. The alternative to this method is “shared, systematic practice” that relies on active collaboration (Raudenbush, 2009, p. 172). The reauthorization of NCLB must encourage teachers to open their classroom doors and work with their colleagues to improve their schools. One way to do this is to mandate a certain amount of professional development. Clearly this time must be spent wisely or else it will be meaningless. But spent wisely, it could have interminable results for students.
Another practice that will improve student learning is simply more school. This idea is highly controversial since many people think that schools now are not doing a good job, so what would be the point of having more of it? The point of having more of it is because even low-performing schools are a better environment for children than what is often the alternative. For some students, their out-of-school time is spent on productive activities. After school they may play sports or go home and do homework with the help of their parents, and during the summer they may attend camps that stimulate them physically, mentally and emotionally. Other students are not as fortunate and do not have these opportunities outside of school. These students are the ones that would benefit the most from more time in school (Raudenbush, 2009).
Students should have the option of spending more time in school. Schools should be mandated to provide summer school or even some sort of summer program. Schools should be required to have the same thing after school. Along those same lines, providing universal preschool should be compulsory in all states. While preschool is not necessary for all children, it can be incredibly helpful for some. Raudenbush states that one of the most effective practices for improving student achievement is to provide a high-quality education to low-income children as early as possible. The earlier these kids start school, the sooner they get exposed to pro-social and pro-academic behaviors and norms, which improve their achievement in the long-run (Raudenbush, 2009).
One common theme that has been visible in all of these suggestions is the aspect of requirement. All of my propositions include federal mandates. Mandates can be defined as “rules governing the action of individuals and agencies [that] are intended to produce compliance” (McDonnell & Elmore, 1987, p. 134). These policy instruments are not suggested by accident; that paper contends that this big decisions should not be left up to the states. If these suggestions were optional or connected to an inducement, states would be less likely to follow through with them.
However, a mandate can be dangerous because it can create incompetence. Cohen and Moffitt state that the original NCLB created great distance between aims and practice, which caused states, districts and schools to appear incompetent. That is why it is important to increase capability while creating mandates. This increased capability will allow schools to successfully reach desired aims. One way to do this is to provide adequate funding to states in order to implement these proposed changes. The funding must be both ample and specific (Cohen & Moffitt, 2009). It must only be used for designated purposes. By providing both mandates and funding, it is much more likely that these reforms will be successfully implemented.
The reauthorization of No Child Left Behind should include a plethora of different school reform practices. It could include mandates for national standards and assessments, improved teacher education, and smaller classes. In addition, there could be more collaboration among teachers through mandated professional development, as well as required summer and after-school programs and universal preschool. If adopted, all of these specifics of the new law would be in the form of mandates in order to force compliance, but they would not cause incompetence if sufficient funding were provided to states. Reforms could do a lot to help our schools be more successful; however, it is also important to remember that many of the problems that schools face come from outside their walls. There are a number of social problems that negatively affect children before they even enter school. In order to achieve universal success among students, education reforms must be accompanied by broader social reforms. Only these social reforms can fix the underlying problems of low-performing schools (Cohen & Moffitt, 2009). Educational reforms can help, but there is an inherent need for a stronger focus on the social and economic factors that are affecting the achievement gap (Clarke, 2007). So although reauthorizing No Child Left Behind would be a great start, President Obama must increase the scope of reform in order to truly make a difference in our schools.
Clarke, M. (2007).State Responses to the No Child Left Behind Act: The Uncertain Link Between Implementation and ‘Proficiency for All.’ In C. F. Kaestle & A. E. Lodewick (Eds.), To Educate a Nation: Federal and National Strategies of School Reform (pp. 144‐174). Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Cohen, D. K., & Moffitt, S. L. (2009).The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
McDonnell, L. M., & Elmore, R. F. (1987).Getting the Job Done: Alternative Policy Instruments. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9, 133‐152.
Raudenbush, S. W. (2009).The Brown Legacy and the O’Connor Challenge: Transforming Schools in the Images of Children’s Potential.Educational Researcher, 38 (3), 169‐180.
Smith, M. S., & O’Day, J. A. (1990).Systemic School Reform. In S. Fuhrman & B. Malen (Eds.), The politics of curriculum and testing (pp. 233-267). Philadelphia, PA: The Falmer Press.