NCLB Requirements Come Due

Last Updated: August 26, 2014

This article appeared in the August 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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The federal elementary and secondary education law that has shaped policy for nearly a generation is scheduled to culminate this school year with highly qualified teachers in every classroom and every single child in the nation scoring proficient or higher on state reading and math tests.

Schools where even one child misses the mark are to be labeled as failing and subjected to onerous sanctions intended to prod teachers into doing a better job. Sanctions for districts and states that failed to ensure that all teachers are highly qualified (defined in the law as having passed a rigorous content exam or earned a college major in all subjects they teach) have never been quite so clear. Nor have consequences for states and districts that fail to ensure that low-income and minority children are taught by highly qualified teachers at the same rate as their more affluent peers.

The Obama administration met the statistical impossibility of the testing provisions—no matter how well a school teaches there will be kids somewhere in every state who don’t feel well on testing day, who don’t speak English, who struggle with severe learning disabilities, whose families are in crisis—with a set of waivers. Basically states could opt out of the 100% proficiency requirements if they agreed to take other measures, including rate teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores and focus improvement efforts on the lowest-performing schools.

Most states took the waivers and began a flurry of activities to develop new teacher evaluation tools, effectively raising the stakes for student test scores and pinning scores squarely—and sometimes solely—on the teachers in the classroom, despite overwhelming evidence that teachers have relatively little influence on students' standardized test scores. Other factors, especially those related to poverty and parental educational level, have a much larger effect on scores.

As a result waiver states are spared the embarrassing task this fall of falsely declaring all their schools failures.

A few states, including Vermont, however, refused the waivers. This month Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe wrote a memo to parents and caregivers explaining why Vermont refused the waiver, why the state is compelled to declare every Vermont public school a failure—something she eloquently disputes, and suggesting questions parents should ask about the quality of their child’s school. It’s a moving and informative letter you can read here. You can read RPM coverage here.

Teacher quality

While federal policy has shifted its definition of teacher quality from qualifications (college degree and exam) to student test scores, it has largely ignored the NCLB requirement that all students have equal access to highly qualified teachers. That’s unfortunate.

In ignoring enforcement of the equity provision, the U.S. Department of Education has made it easy for states to ignore one of the most important components of educational opportunity in high-poverty districts: funding equity.

Funding levels in American school districts vary widely across the nation and within states. See Summer Crop of Finance Studies in this issue of RPM.

School funding levels have a direct effect on teacher recruitment and retention. Districts with low funding levels generally pay teachers less than teachers in districts with higher per pupil funding and have a harder time holding on to teachers once they hire them.

Further, teachers in poorly funded districts have fewer material, equipment, and technology resources; they often have larger classes; work in less comfortable and supportive facilities; experience less support in the form of appropriate professional development and collaboration with a stable faculty of colleagues; and their students bring many more learning and personal challenges to the classroom, often taxing teachers’ own personal and financial reserves. All of these factors create disincentives for teachers to seek employment and remain in high-poverty districts.

There is well-documented data that students who attend high-poverty and high-minority schools have less access to a full curriculum and are more likely to be taught by inexperienced and out-of-field teachers. And there are long-established patterns in many high-poverty schools of teachers transferring to more affluent districts where supports are stronger and higher test scores easier to achieve.

The relatively new provisions to raise testing stakes only intensify this pattern. When teacher tenure, pay, opportunity for advancement, and professional credibility are tied to a single student measure, especially one that primarily reflects student background, many teachers are forced to pursue opportunities in districts where most students will score well no matter what the teacher does. The effect is to undermine equity.

This month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. The initiative requires states to submit an Educator Equity plan by April. (See the letter to chief state school officers here.) The initiative includes $4.2 million for a technical assistance network to help states and districts develop and implement plans, and it promises data to states to help them assess where they are.

It’s not the first time states have been asked for teacher equity plans. The original NCLB law required states to ensure equitable distribution nearly a decade ago. But many states have yet to submit a plan and there’s little evidence of states taking actions to address the major issues affecting where teachers practice or how teachers are supported in the most challenging schools.

It will be interesting to see what states propose and how the Department enforces these important provisions of the federal education law.

RPM hopes that other states will pay attention to Rebecca Holcombe’s leadership in Vermont and to recent research proving the importance of equitable school funding in achieving good outcomes for low-income students. More importantly, we hope states will take actions that will actually make a difference, ensure schools have the resources they need, support teachers so they can do their best work no matter where or whom they teach, and give every kid a fighting chance. When that happens we can begin to put meaning into the words no child left behind.


Read more from the August 2014 Rural Policy Matters.