‘No Child’ law gives reformers good tools

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There is much to like in “No Child Left Behind,” the new federal education law aimed at pressuring states and school districts to lift the academic achievement of their lowest performing schools and children. Had it been in force six years ago, when Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed his first school team, Chicago likely would have been farther down that path by now. Here are some of the reasons why:

TESTING The feds demand tests that measure students’ attainment of academic standards, and an accountability system that reports annual growth toward a common goal that all children must reach in 12 years. In contrast, Chicago has relied on a battery of tests, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, that simply compares students to the average performance of their peers nationwide, the so-called national norm, regardless of whether that average reflects a level of achievement that children need to succeed. Chicago’s accountability system has required schools to get a certain percentage of students up to the national norm, which has prompted some schools to focus their attention on students within reach of it, to the detriment of those farthest behind. In addition, Chicago has sapped faculty morale in the schools farthest behind by failing to reward annual progress. The feds got it right.

However, in a move they likely will regret, Congress and the administration have let every state set its own standards and develop its own tests, as if 4th-graders in, say, Wyoming read differently than 4th-graders in Illinois. Test development is an enormously difficult undertaking, as Illinois’ experience with the IGAP and ISAT have shown. Having 50 states do it is a waste time and money. With testing expertise spread so thin, there undoubtedly will be flaws that undermine confidence. If good sense prevails, a consensus will develop for high-quality national assessments whose questions can subsequently be made public so that students, parents and educators all know what to shoot for.

QUALITY TEACHING Within four years, all teachers are to be “highly qualified,” meaning they are certified and have demonstrated competence in the academic subjects they teach. In the meantime, states and districts must take steps to ensure that minority and disadvantaged students get their fair share of “highly qualified” teachers. While this goal can be easily subverted, it offers a stepping stone to the Chicago Teachers Union in its intent to negotiate incentives to attract experienced teachers to the toughest schools and keep them there.

In one of the more surprising developments, “No Child Left Behind” also provides a boost to high-quality professional development, accurately defining it as “sustained, intensive and classroom-focused” and “not 1-day or short-term workshops or conferences.”

SCHOOL CHOICE The new federal law requires school districts to allow children at schools that are not making academic progress to transfer to a better school, with the district paying for the ride. As Catalyst reporting has shown, Chicago already has a system of choice at the high school level. Used principally by better-performing students, the system has left a dozen schools with dense concentrations of low-achieving and special-education students. In contrast, the federal law gives transfer preference to low-performing, low-income students.

Since excellence cannot be mandated, many aspects of “No Child Left Behind” are unenforceable. Even so, the law has great potential for advancing deep-seated school improvement. Whether that happens will depend on the vigilance of school reformers who understand how schools work and change.

ABOUT US Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin is a finalist in the awards competition sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national professional organization. She was recognized for her reports in the December 2001 issue on the high schools that choice has left behind. She shares finalist standing with colleagues at our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, who were recognized for investigations into jury selection in Cook County and into the state’s capital program, Illinois First