Note: This entire report is a worthwhile read. -Angela
March 16, 2005
LETTER TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
Public education depends upon public support and involvement to work effectively. Schools educate our children, create knowledgeable citizens, and contribute to a qualified workforce for our communities. They are the backbone of our democracy, and a fundamental building block of our communities. Yet, the promise of good schools for all will not be fully realized until every member of the public—business leaders, parents, grandparents, community leaders, and ordinary people—demands that schools be the best they can be. Schools must have the advantage of the resources the public can provide—not least of which is our concern and active involvement.
Fortunately, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act offers the nation powerful tools to know and demand more of our schools. NCLB puts into law what the public has long believed: that every child should have the opportunity of a high-quality public education. NCLB is not self-enforcing. It must be implemented with knowledge and accountability to achieve its ambitious and worthy goals for our children and for the nation.
Over the past nine months, Public Education Network (PEN) held a series of public hearings around the country, and conducted an online survey to gauge Americans’ reactions to NCLB. The purpose of these hearings was not to hear from government leaders or professional educators entrusted to manage the nation’s schools, but to hear from people from every walk of life—parents, students, civic leaders, service providers, and voters—about how NCLB has affected their communities, and what is going well or needs to be improved in the implementation of the law.
We want to thank you, the American public, for coming to the hearings to tell us your views, and for responding to our online survey. Your experiences were compelling, your answers thoughtful, and your messages powerful. We will carry your words back to the public, and to policymakers and media across this country. You spoke loud and clear.
The public wants NCLB to meet its goals. The hearings and the survey also revealed that the public has serious concerns about the way the law is being implemented. And there are numerous factors outside NCLB’s purview—such as local funding inequities and educators’ reluctance or inability to engage with low-income parents and communities—that thwart the ability of this law to succeed.
In this letter, we want to share with you some of the key findings from the hearings and the survey, and to suggest ways that NCLB can be improved. These suggested changes would make it more likely that our collective goals would be achieved, and that the law would receive the full support of the American people. As Maria Leon, a parent from Los Angeles put it (in Spanish): “I don’t want No Child Left Behind to stay a wonderful idea. I want it to really become as it should be and have it really serve to improve our children's education and that way, better our community as a whole.”
Gauging Public Opinion
No Child Left Behind has generated an often-heated public debate, probably the most intense discussion of public education policy in the last half-century. For the most part, the reported discussions have been among leaders of education organizations and elected officials. There has been little attempt to find out what students, parents, community members and the public think about the law.
To find out, Public Education Network fanned across the country from May to October 2004 and held a series of hearings in eight states: Pennsylvania; Massachusetts; California; Ohio; Texas; Tennessee; New York; and Illinois. Hundreds of people attended the sessions. In addition to the hearings, PEN conducted an online survey to which some 12,000 people responded.
Many participants said the hearings and the survey provided a very welcome opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions about an important public policy. They are rarely invited to offer their views; when they are, the invitation is often a token gesture with minimal attention given to their perspective. While not all of the participants shared a detailed knowledge about the workings of the law, parents and other members of the public have strong, valid ideas that should be heeded.
What PEN Learned
Strong Support for the Goals.
The American public strongly supports the goals of NCLB. Only one public hearing participant, and only a fourth of the survey respondents, wanted to repeal the act.
The public understands the President’s and Congress’ message about accountability for student performance. There was particularly strong support for the notion of holding schools accountable for improving student performance, which many participants said was far too low for too many young people. “Passing the buck cannot continue when it comes to our children,” said one Lancaster, Pennsylvania parent. “There should be no
reason why our children are graduating without the necessary skills to be productive members of society, and far too many are.”
Parents and the public also strongly praised the idea of performance data disaggregated by racial, ethnic, socio-economic, language minority, and special education status. They said that showing the performance of each group sheds light on the inequities often hidden by reports of overall school performance.
Most expressed concern that the strength of the law—accountability for the performance of all students—could also be a weakness. The stigma resulting from a school being labeled “in need of improvement,” commonly understood as a euphemism for “failing,” is hugely demoralizing to students, parents, and communities, particularly in those places where we need the law to succeed. Students report that their diploma is “worth less” if it comes from a “failing” school, and good teachers often leave such schools.
Perhaps the most troubling issue raised in PEN’s hearings is NCLB’s unintended consequence of pitting parents’ concerns for their children against their desire for acknowledgement and respect. There is tremendous blaming of those students seen as more responsible than others for a school’s failure to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress goals. The children most often singled out are those with disabilities.
In order to ensure that accountability, the heart of standards-based reform, succeeds at the local level, and that public backlash doesn’t build sufficient momentum to eviscerate it, every means possible should be used to counteract the stigma associated with the labeling of schools.
Concern over the limits of tests.
While the public appreciates the light that NCLB shines on student performance, many are also concerned that the picture that is revealed is not always accurate. Nine of ten survey respondents said a single annual test cannot tell if individual students are performing satisfactorily, or if a school needs improvement.
Moreover, many said the tests that are in use focus on too limited a set of skills. And, they argued, test-based accountability has led many schools to resort to irrational practices. “The tests completely took over the school,” said one Columbus, Ohio student, “but if you look deeply, students haven't really learned anything. So the school is failing, in a way.”
Concern over a lowering of standards.
Although NCLB was intended to raise standards for all students and eliminate achievement gaps, participants at the public hearings pointed out that some states, in an effort to ensure that schools meet their annual targets, have actually lowered those targets. And many schools have abandoned earlier, more ambitious learning experiences in order to achieve short-term gains in test scores.
Some pointed out that Advanced Placement classes and programs for gifted and talented students have been sacrificed to support remediation for low-performing students. Others noted that alternative programs for students at risk of dropping out, which often provide more time to reach standards, have been eliminated because of graduation-rate statistics that measure whether students graduate “on time.” Some said the proficiency demands for students with disabilities and English-language learners are unreasonable. Said one grandmother from Erie, Pennsylvania: “Setting standards that are impossible for these children to achieve only sets them up for failure.”
Concern over standards for teacher quality.
Public hearing participants and survey respondents praised NCLB for focusing attention on teacher quality and for requiring states and districts to hire highly qualified teachers. Despite the law’s requirement for public reports on teacher quality, few parents knew what the qualifications of their school’s teachers were. Only a fourth of the non-educators responding to the survey had received information on teacher qualifications.
Although nearly all teachers are “highly qualified,” according to state reports to the U.S. Department of Education, few survey respondents believe that teachers meet that standard. Only 20 percent of non-educators think all teachers are qualified, and only 54 percent think “most” teachers are qualified. And many parents testified that the standards for ‘teacher quality’ may be too low. In addition to certification, they want teachers who have real teaching skills and high expectations of their children.
Concern over the lack of information.
Despite NCLB mandates to the contrary, few members of the public have information about the assessments, the quality of teachers, or the availability of choice or supplemental educational services in their schools and districts. Almost two-thirds of the respondents in the online survey said that NCLB had not made a difference in the amount or quality of information they received about schools.
Moreover, many said that when information is provided, it is often too late to be useful and is filled with jargon. The public must go to extraordinary efforts to become well-informed. The public wants specifics—the climate of the school, teacher qualifications, classroom size, sources and use of funding, and comparisons with schools in other districts—in accessible language.
Concern about an unwillingness to involve parents or community organizations.
Although the law expressly provides for parent involvement, many schools have resisted these provisions and have worked actively to exclude parents who wish to become involved in improvement activities. Some parents said that they felt that they were allowed to participate in school improvement efforts only as tokens to fulfill paperwork requirements; others reported that they were even subjected to restraining orders.
“I went to a conference where [NCLB] was first introduced, and I was so excited because it felt like they were talking to me,” said Martha Alvarado, a parent from Edgewood, Texas. “And they kept saying, ‘We need parents involved.’ And I said, ‘I’m right here…’ But the schools don't know how to deal with parents. For some reasons, they feel threatened.”
What We Are Asking Federal, State and Local Officials to Do
The hearings and the survey made clear that the American public strongly endorses the goals of No Child Left Behind and supports its continuation. And the public has some very strong opinions about how the law and its implementation can be improved so that it achieves its goals.
In particular, President Bush, this Administration, and Congress should:
• Enforce NCLB's parent involvement provisions. The law includes a number of important provisions that enable parents to play active roles in school improvement. In most school districts these provisions have languished and parents have met resistance from school officials when they tried to get involved. This is particularly true among minority parents. By enforcing the provisions already in the law, the federal government can send a strong signal to states and school districts that parents can and should be active partners in school improvement.
States and districts should provide professional development for school personnel to help make this happen.
• Enforce the law's information requirements. Because of NCLB, states and districts have produced a wealth of information on school performance, teacher quality, and other factors. This information is not widely available, and much of it is difficult for parents and the public to understand. To make parent involvement meaningful, the Administration should enforce the law so that states and local school districts provide more information about state accountability, the uses of assessments, and teachers’ qualifications in their schools in a comprehensive, timely, and accessible manner, translated into home languages as necessary.
States should set and enforce standards of quality for information dissemination, and provide redress for people not receiving appropriate information.
In particular, as long as the law's choice provisions remain unchanged, school districts must provide information in a timely and accurate basis in order for placement decisions to be made before a school year begins.
• Keep the public in the conversation. Few states and school districts have the capacity to carry out all of the functions they are expected to perform under NCLB. They can expand their capacity by forming partnerships with community-based organizations—if the Administration would provide flexibility to allow such partnerships.
Community-based education organizations (CBEOs) can serve many roles in supporting district implementation of NCLB. They can, for example, be a channel for public voice and help communities develop a consensus about the qualities they want their school graduates to have; how assessments can support those goals; what qualities teachers need to help students attain those goals; and what responsibilities parents and communities must assume. This consensus can be integrated with NCLB reporting requirements so that it becomes part of the “report card” to the public.
CBEOs can also provide information to parents and communities about the purpose and use of the assessments used by the district; they can assist in the collection, interpretation and presentation of data about assessment results, qualifications of teachers, and the designation of schools. CBEOs can educate communities about what “needing improvement” means, what the consequences of such a designation are, and what the entire community can do to help the schools.
In addition, CBEOs can support districts in implementing the supplemental services provisions of the law by issuing their own “report cards” about available supplemental services.
In addition to these administrative changes, we believe that Congress should fine-tune the law when it comes up for reconsideration, so that it works more effectively. In particular, Congress should amend the law to:
• Hold states accountable for performance and for enforcing the law. Currently, children, their schools, and school districts are accountable for meeting annual targets for student performance. The states, which set the targets and establish the NCLB structure, face no consequences when large numbers of students fail to meet these targets. Penalties should be imposed upon states, parallel to those imposed upon school districts, when insufficient numbers of children within the state meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. These should include the
designation of states as “in need of improvement” or “in corrective action” with the concomitant assistance and sanctions described in NCLB.
In addition, the Administration should enforce states’ compliance with NCLB. And states, school districts, and schools must allocate adequate resources and equitably distribute them to ensure that all children have the opportunity to meet proficiency standards.
Federal, state, and local officials should provide financial incentives to ensure that highly qualified teachers are teaching in low-performing schools.
• Count school progress toward AYP. The reaction of teachers and administrators to test pressure has put enormous stress on students, and has led to significant narrowing of the curriculum, with teachers focused primarily on test preparation while ignoring other subjects. Immigrant students report being pushed out of school. To reduce these incidents, schools should receive AYP “credit” for making
significant progress toward proficiency targets, as well as for crossing over the bar.
• Provide supplemental services before allowing choice, and ensure quality services. Although parents of children in low-performing schools desperately want improvement, they would much prefer the option of receiving supplemental education services before the option to transfer their child to another school. In practice, the choice option is not working because there are not enough spaces in higher-performing schools and because parents value neighborhood schools. By providing support to students first, Congress could help support neighborhood
schools while giving them time to improve, rather than abandoning them. When choice is provided, if insufficient slots are available in higher performing schools, students should be permitted to transfer to schools in neighboring school districts.
At the same time, supplemental service providers need to be held to higher standards. Some parents have found that services for English language learners are not available, and that the quality of service is variable. Federal officials and states should require SES providers to adhere to the “highly qualified teacher” provisions and the research-based requirements of NCLB, in addition to the other criteria specified in the law.
Given the magnitude of NCLB’s intent to transform public education and the opportunity that the legislation proffers, it is especially critical that public officials work closely with educators, community members, parents, and students affected by this law. The main thrust of the federal law is to make public schools function transparently, on the theory that an informed public will demand that students, teachers, and schools perform as they should. If they have easy access to information on standards, teacher qualifications,
curriculum designs, and test scores, then parents, policymakers, and the public will have the leverage they need to call their schools and educators to account. With the knowledge they have, the public has validated the law’s goals, and they have also demanded important changes to ensure that the needs of every segment of the community are met.
The education of our children is one of the most central responsibilities we have as citizens in a democratic society. Let us work together to make certain that this law achieves all of its promise to offer the next generation a democracy even stronger than the one we inherited.
Thank you, again, to the thousands of Americans that participated in this process.
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