Monday, February 18, 2008

Provoking a Fed

This opinion piece was published as a “My Word” in the Oakland Tribune on February 5, 2007. Five days later, Christopher Wright, the Secretary's Regional Representative, Region IX at the U.S. Department of Education, responded to me in a letter to the editor of his own.* This piece was also picked up by the California School Board Association and was posted on their web site for a time.

‘No Child Left Behind’ backs Oakland schools against wall

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is having an enormous impact on Oakland. Our public schools have been struggling to meet its demands since 2002. NCLB is scheduled for reauthorization this year, so it is essential to understand how it works.

Public school students have taken achievement tests for years. But in 1999, when California’s Public Schools Accountability Act was passed, the state acquired authority to determine goals for student achievement and to administer consequences for failure. The federal government joined the movement for accountability by passing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

NCLB is an ultimatum. It demands that by 2014, all public school students — regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, language spoken at home, or disability — must be proficient in reading and math. NCLB defines its own set of goals and consequences.

Sorting out two sets of goals and consequences, each with their own data and terminology (API, AYP, AMO, NSS, PI, SAIT, etc.), is not easy. Poorly educated and non-English speaking parents must encounter great difficulty.

Although every school is evaluated, only schools that receive federal assistance for poor students (Title 1 funding) are penalized when test scores fall short. Last year, OUSD had 31,860 students (66.2%) who qualified as poor.

By threatening schools with penalties, NCLB expects they will try harder. The law presumes that schools, primarily teachers, are omnipotent to produce high student academic achievement. Student factors like having poorly educated parents, being subjected to a chaotic upbringing, or never speaking English at home are not considered. NCLB permits no exceptions and has no gray areas.

Schools are evaluated as a whole, and official subgroups are evaluated if enough students are enrolled. Because of this, schools which have diverse student populations (like those in Oakland) must meet more criteria than schools which do not.

Both English-language arts and mathematics tests are evaluated separately, each for required levels of student participation and proficiency. Schools must meet a single additional indicator requirement. High schools have a graduation rate requirement.

NCLB is an annual pass/fail test which requires a perfect score to pass, and is made more difficult every year. The curve is very steep. Each year, NCLB expects an increasing percentage of students to reach proficiency so that, by 2014, 100% will arrive.

Interestingly, states determine their own meaning of proficiency. Reaching "proficiency" for NCLB in California is different than in Texas, for example. Thus, students in some states reach proficiency targets more easily than students in other states.

Every August, test results from the preceding school year are revealed. The portion that pertains to the federal requirements is called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Reports are on the California Department of Education’s Web site.

Generally speaking, when enough progress is not made for two consecutive years, a school is declared “in program improvement” and specific corrective actions are taken. Of 132 schools in OUSD, over 60 were in various levels of this designation in 2006. Ultimately, a major revision of the school (restructuring) occurs if it is unable to sufficiently improve its scores over time.

After five years of No Child Left Behind, the fantasized amount of progress has not been made. What has been revealed, however, is the immensity of the American educational achievement gap. If we truly want it closed, more will need to be done.

Sharon Higgins is an Oakland public school parent and a Parent Coordinator at Bret Harte Middle School.

*So, there I was at World Ground with George, reading the paper and sipping coffee on a Sunday morning. Suddenly, I saw a letter to the editor challenging my most recent “My Word.” It announced that fantasies and ultimatums at schools are a good thing. [A very smart response] Then it declared that, “Test results demonstrate that NCLB is working.”

When I reached the bottom of the letter, I learned that it had been written by Margaret Spellings’ local henchman. I felt my face flush -- lil’ ol’ me had provoked the Feds! Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until 2014 to find out which one of us was right.

By the way, I did a little research on Mr. Wright and learned that he is a member of Lead21, “a policy and advocacy organization devoted to strengthening American prosperity through free-market entrepreneurship and innovation” according to But why would I be surprised?

1 comment:

rachel norton said...

Hey Sharon - thanks for starting your blog & good luck.