In March, the Obama administration announced its plans to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The last time the act was reauthorized, in 2001, it was called No Child Left Behind and became the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s education efforts. NCLB brought with it an increased focus upon testing and accountability in schools.
What have we learned from the act during the past decade? What changes would improve it? In my own search for answers, I asked faculty members from various education specialties for their views, which I share here.
Professor David Slavit on accountability
Right now Secretary Duncan talks about NCLB as being too punitive and prescriptive because of its accountability measures. Why do we have accountability? Because we don’t trust people to do their jobs.
Surveys show that most people think their own children’s teachers are quite good, but that teachers in general are not. This says a great deal about the kind of negative messaging people receive in this country about teachers, and the political harm this has been doing to teachers for the past decades. The basis of any reauthorization needs to assume one thing: Teachers are professionals deserving of trust and respect. The many teachers whom I visit on a regular basis are some of the hardest working people I know. And certainly some of the most caring.
Associate Professor Judy Morrison on science education
Under the NCLB, science education has not received the same attention that reading and mathematics have, because the law did not require yearly science assessments.
Though not necessarily advocating for yearly assessments, science educators would like to see students taking more science courses and being exposed to the reality of science in their science courses. There also needs to be an ongoing conversation about which important scientific knowledge and skills our students should be exposed to so that they become scientifically literate citizens. We need to open their eyes to the development, meaning, value, and limitations of scientific knowledge. As students engage in more authentic science in their K-12 science courses, they will be exposed to the creativity and innovation that science involves, strengthening their passion and causing them to consider careers in science.
If higher standards and more assessments can produce more opportunities for students to receive quality science instruction, then these certainly should be a part of the ESEA revisions involving science education.
Clinical Associate Professor Gay Selby on support for teachers, leaders
There is much about No Child Left Behind that I personally support—most important to me is that it requires schools to examine data, including student achievement data, high school graduation rates, and the qualifications of teachers as to teaching assignments. These areas of examination have “shined a light” on important areas that all too often prior to NCLB were not well examined.
I believe most teachers and principals today are intentional in their efforts to address the learning needs of all students and to improve high school graduation rates. Many teachers have changed how they work together and many innovative programs have emerged to provide the needed support to students. The role of principals also has changed from one of manager to leader—an instructional leader focused on assisting teachers with their classroom practice and student needs.
The downsides of NCLB are the heavy reliance on standardized tests data to determine how well a school is doing and the use of test results to punish teachers and principals as a means of motivating them. It is my hope that a reauthorized NCLB will focus on targeted support for teachers and principals.
The public and policy makers have every right to expect high performance from their schools and every right to hold teachers and principals accountable, but should be realistic about the challenges schools face and recognize that schools need authentic support in their efforts to improve. Only after such efforts should punitive measures be taken.
Assistant Professor Janet Frost on the intent of the law
I greet reauthorization of the act with mixed feelings. The intentions of actually meeting the educational needs of all children were noble, and the federal funding provided the opportunity for extensive professional development work my colleagues and I do that seems to be making a difference for teachers and students. However, the means of accountability and implementation of NCLB seemed misguided.
Most teachers and administrators with whom I have worked have felt that this legislation forced them to take steps that seemed educationally bizarre and the opposite of the legislation’s intent. They learned to focus their efforts on those students whose scores were just below passing, cutting back attention for lower or higher students. Schools reduced or eliminated time for science, social studies, the arts, and physical education — all areas of study that engage students who may be less interested or successful in mathematics or literacy learning. Teachers’ emotional energy became so focused on meeting Adequate Yearly Progress that they were less aware or considerate of their impact on students. I learned of students who couldn’t sleep the night before the high-stakes tests because their teachers had told them they were responsible for the school’s score and future. Some principals couldn’t be bothered with improving grade 11-12 students’ preparation for college success because yearly progress was focused on grade 10 scores.
Associate Professor Brian French on achievement testing
The attention given to achievement testing will not wane with reauthorization. It will only increase as common standards are applied to schools nationwide. First, there is the challenge of producing high quality assessments. The timeline and budget may not be sufficient to ensure proper development and implementation of tests.
Second, the magnitude of the common core project is almost overwhelming to the states and organizations charged with implementing the assessment system. For example, changing from paper-and-pencil tests to computer adaptive assessments sounds simple. However, having enough adequate working computers is a major barrier to implementation. Plus, there is a heavy bet being placed on technology for success for this system–technology that may not yet exist.
Third, achievement tests are designed for measuring individual student progress. However, the scores are put to many other uses (such as promotion, grades, teacher effectiveness, program accountability) with no assurance that they are valid measurements for those purposes.
Fourth, teachers will be asked, if not required, to make use of assessment scores to modify instruction, see and understand individual student mistakes, and convey student progress to parents. The challenge is to ensure they are prepared to do so.