Citizens for Effective Schools

Why NCLB Must Be Restructured To Accomplish Its Goals, How To Do It and How You Can Help

Speech Delivered to the AFSA 2007 Leadership Conference, Silver Spring, Md.
July 20, 2007

Gary M. Ratner, Executive Director, Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc.

President  Levy, national officers, presidents and other officers of local unions and other leaders of the American Federation of School Administrators: I am deeply honored to have been invited to be your Guest Speaker for this culminating event of your five day Leadership Conference.

I am particularly touched to be here at the National Labor College of the AFL-CIO because I come from two generations deeply committed to the American labor movement: my grandmother and great aunt were lifelong and devoted members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Chicago.  And my father was, for decades, a litigator for national and local unions, passionately committed to the cause of the working man and woman.  It would give him immense pride and pleasure to know that I was speaking to you here today!

I understand that most of this week you have been involved in the "nuts and bolts" -  how to do collective bargaining, legislative advocacy, member communications and media relations.  For this last event, I have been invited to help you shift gears, to step back and focus now and for the next several months, on the "big picture": the policy battle over the future of the "No Child Left Behind" law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and how you can influence how that battle comes out!

As indicated in the kind introduction, I want to focus, in part, on the "Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind Act" which sets out fourteen principles for restructuring NCLB.  The Joint Statement has now been signed by 137 national education, civil rights, disability, religious, civic and labor organizations, representing more than 50 million people; AFSA is one of the signers.  In addition, I will discuss concrete policies and legislative recommendations for implementing these principles that have been prepared by the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), a working group of some of the signers of the Joint Statement.  AFSA is an active participant in FEA.  The policies are set out in our FEA report, "Redefining Accountability: Improving Student Learning by Building Capacity" (February 2007); the legislative recommendations are contained in "Proposed ESEA/NCLB Amendments" (March 30, 2007).  And I will also draw on my recently published law review article, "Why NCLB Needs To Be Restructured To Accomplish Its Goals and How To Do It" (March 2007).

At the outset, is everybody familiar with the accountability structure of NCLB?  Please raise your hands if you are.  While most of you are, just to be sure everybody is on the same wavelength, let me describe this briefly. 

Essentially, the Act requires: states to adopt "challenging academic content standards" and "achievement standards;" annually testing all students in grades 3 through 8, and in one grade 10 to 12, in reading and math; achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), with 100% of students "proficient" by 2014; escalating sanctions starting after two consecutive years of failure to make AYP, including transfers, tutoring, replacing staff, private contracting and state takeovers; having "highly qualified teachers" in all core academic subjects by 2006, with licensure and testing defined by each state; and publicly reporting each year which schools fail to make AYP.  That is, NCLB's current accountability system essentially requires "tests" up front, "sanctions" at the rear, and "jumps over" the critical part – the middle: what changes are needed to improve learning? 

To help get a handle on this big and complex topic, I'd like to focus on four issues:

  1. Why President Bush's assertion that NCLB "is working" is wrong!
  2. What are the key elements of the "Joint Organizational Statement" – its principles.
  3. How has FEA converted those principles into concrete policies in our legislative recommendations, and
  4. How You Can Organize At the local level to Have a Potentially Significant Impact on What the ESEA Reauthorization Will Look Like Whenever It is Enacted Into Law!!

I expect to talk for about half an hour and then have substantial time for questions and discussion.  Copies of all the documents I refer to will be available for you to pick up at the end.

Let me start by putting the ESEA reauthorization into context.  NCLB was Bush's initiative.  It was signed into law in January 2002, with strong Republican and Democratic congressional backing, and is regarded by him as his leading domestic legislative accomplishment.  His argument for reauthorizing it is essentially very simple: "[It] is working. [i.e. to raise student achievement for poor and minority students.  Therefore] Congress needs to reauthorize [it, i.e. essentially as is.]"  As Secretary Spellings says: "It is 99.9% pure."

If, indeed, NCLB is "working," however that is defined, then that would seem to be the end of the public policy argument: If it is "working," it should be reauthorized in essentially the current form, perhaps with some minor tinkering to cure technical defects.  As the saying goes: "If it's not broken, don't fix it!"

So, in the public debate, to have any strong basis for calling for major changes in NCLB, it is necessary to refute the contention that it is "working." 

I believe that this can be done on three grounds.

First, the Administration cannot point to any reliable statistics that show that NCLB has produced major improvements nationwide in student learning, even in "reading" and "math," the two target subjects during its first five years.  While Bush relies on "a recent study by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy" for the conclusion that "the nation's students have performed significantly better on state reading and math tests since [NCLB] went into effect," careful analysis severely undermines that conclusion.

The study only covered 13 states out of 50.  Of those 13, only 5 states showed significant gains "across grade levels and subject areas."  Further, the states' standards of "proficiency" are very uneven and generally way below the respected national standards contained in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Moreover, many states that, in the study, showed improvement on the state tests failed to show improvement on the NAEP test in the same subject for the same time period.  Thus, the CEP study's results are very limited and problematical, hardly showing major nationwide improvements in reading and math at a rigorous level.

Second, NCLB has caused harms, including: "teaching to the test" and test preparation and rote learning, rather than richer academic learning; narrowing the curriculum; focusing disproportionately on students close to state level "proficiency" at the expense of those in greatest need and those already at that level; and pushing very low-performing students out of school to avoid having to report low test scores and, thereby, risk being subjected to NCLB's sanctions.

Third, NCLB, by putting almost all of its emphasis on "tests and sanctions" for inadequate test scores, has induced schools to concentrate on raising test scores any way they can, rather than making the major systemic improvements in curriculum, teaching, leadership and family support that would be necessary to dramatically improve student learning.  Ask yourself whether NCLB has caused your school to: raise the level of the curriculum and make it more interesting to your students; significantly increase the subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills of your teachers; enhance your own knowledge of how to effectively lead school transformations; and increase parental capacity to support their children's learning??  That is, NCLB has not generated major improvements in the classroom or at home.

So, contrary to the President, NCLB is not "working"!  That is, it is not producing the major educational improvements necessary to reach its laudable goal of "academic proficiency" for all students.

Now, I would like to turn to the second issue: the key elements of the "Joint Statement."  The Joint Statement vigorously endorses NCLB's goals: strong academic achievement for all children and closing the achievement gap.  It favors a strong federal role in accomplishing these goals.  And it urges using an accountability system that helps ensure that "all children, including children of color, from low-income families, with disabilities, and of limited English proficiency, are prepared to be successful, participating members of our democracy."

At the same time, the Joint Statement recognizes that the existing law causes serious harms, including "narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning; …using sanctions that do not help improve schools; [and] inappropriately excluding low-scoring children in order to boost test results [.]"  Overall, the Statement says, the most critical need is to change the emphasis of NCLB's whole "accountability" system: "the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement."

The Joint Statement then lists a number of key recommended changes that must be made in ESEA.  These include the following:

  1. Replace AYP's "arbitrary proficiency targets with ambitious targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools."
  2. Expand assessments to encompass "growth models" and "multiple measures."
  3. Improve teacher and administrator preparation in the schools of education and enhance professional development "that research evidence and experience indicate improve educational quality and student achievement."
  4. Improve state and local capacity to provide technical assistance and programs to develop the knowledge and skills of school staff and students' families.
  5. Replace ineffective sanctions with interventions that improve student achievement.
  6. Provide federal funding for a substantial portion of the cost of carrying out the prior recommendations.
  7. Fully fund Title I so that it serves all eligible children.

Next, I'd like to address the third issue: how FEA has converted these general principles in the Joint Statement into concrete policies embodied in legislative recommendations.

As a preliminary matter, while the Statement recognizes that it is imperative to improve teacher and administrator preparation in schools of education, Congress deals with that subject in the Higher Education Act (HEA) rather than in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Accordingly, FEA has submitted its legislative recommendations for improving preparation as part of the HEA reauthorization.  Our central emphasis there is that Congress should require that, as a condition of receiving federal funds, schools of education should be mandated to provide at least 30 weeks of closely supervised clinical training, integrating "methods" and "theory" courses into the on-site work that student teachers are actually doing.  Research has shown that those teachers' colleges whose graduates are best prepared to teach are provided intensive clinical training of at least this length, as contrasted with the traditional 8-10 week clinical placement which does not adequately prepare teachers for what they will meet in the classroom.

Turning directly to amending ESEA, perhaps the most critical component for improving student learning is enhancing professional development.  In Section 1119A, pages 22-23 of our "Proposed ESEA/NCLB Amendments", we identify six practices that all Title I funded "high needs schools" (i.e. those with the highest poverty and lowest achievement) would be required to adopt to continue to receive Title I funding:

  1. "Design and conduct district-and/or school-wide professional development that addresses the student learning needs identified by school staffs, so that all teachers will have the subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills to effectively teach a challenging curriculum to diverse learners and foster a supportive learning climate.
  2. Provide regular time for staff discussion and collaboration during the school day about professional, instructional, curricular, and assessment-related issues.
  3. Provide intensive induction and mentoring support for beginning teachers and provide mentoring for experienced teachers as well, to meet their individual professional development needs and promote their success.
  4. Create and fill positions that require specialized skill sets, such as mentor teachers/coaches, professional development specialists, curriculum developers, subject matter coordinators, literacy coaches, school supervisors, and other such positions.
  5. Provide intensive training for school staff on engaging and supporting families and communities so all can contribute to their children's behavioral development and academic achievement.  Involve parents in designing and providing this training.
  6. Provide training in instructional leadership skills for school administrators, teachers, and pupil service personnel so they can create supportive learning communities that will improve instruction, produce effective professional development activities, and engage families in their children's education."

While all "high needs schools" would have to implement all six of the above policies, every Title I funded school would have to implement at least the first two: basing professional development on the learning needs identified by the staff in each school and providing for regular peer collaboration. 

That is, unlike NCLB, where only those Title I funded schools that fail AYP must make improvements, FEA reverses the whole approach. We know that all Title I schools have a substantial percentage of students who are below "proficient," i.e., below grade level, in reading and math and we know the key policies and practices  that work to improve teaching and learning.  (If you are interested, I invite you to look at the research that I have cited in footnote 145 of my NCLB law review article, as well as the new book by Karin Chenoweth, It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (2007).)

To transform professional development, FEA recommends that the above elements be combined with the following: require that 20% of Title I funds be spent on implementing the six above policies and that states provide an equal match from state funds, so that a total amount equal to 40% of Title I funds would be used to implement the six policies; eliminate the current requirement that 20% of Title I funds be allocated to transfers and tutoring; and direct localities and states to submit annual narrative reports of what steps they have taken to implement the six professional development policies, what obstacles they encountered, what efforts they made to overcome the obstacles, and what were the results.

The second major substantive area in which FEA calls for systemic changes involves family involvement and family support.  (This is discussed in Section 1118 of the "Proposed ESEA/NCLB Amendments", pages 17 to 21.)  By "family involvement," we are referring particularly to the relationship between the family and the school.  The existing law is pretty good on this subject, so we focus on expanding the flow of information to parents and increasing their opportunities to be involved in school planning.

By contrast, NCLB is very weak on "family support" – strengthening the capacity of families to support their children's learning at home, or filling the gap where no parents are available.  Here, FEA recommends that all Title I funded "high needs schools" be required to offer programs of adult literacy and parenting skills "to help motivate and support their children with schoolwork and to encourage them to meet high academic standards."  And, for those students for whom there are no parents available to "provide stability, structure, and positive role models for pursuing academic achievement," "high needs schools" would be required "to offer adult mentoring or other programs that provide individualized support and motivation" for these students.

To effectively implement these systemic changes in family involvement and family support: 5% of Title I funds would have to be allocated to this purpose, as distinguished from the mere 1% set-aside now; schools and districts would have to provide narrative reporting on the steps they are taking to implement the family involvement and support policies, analogous to the reporting required for professional development; new Parent Involvement Assistance offices would have to be established at the federal and state levels to provide technical assistance for carrying out the policies; and states would ultimately be responsible for ensuring that these policies were being implemented at the local level.
A third major area of the legislative recommendations that I do not have time to get into in any detail involves assessments.  This is dealt with in Section 1111, pages 4 to 10.  A key concept here is that instead of rigid AYP targets, schools would be assessed based on whether they were achieving a "positive trend in learning outcomes" as evidenced by the rates of gain achieved by the most successful Title I schools in each state.

The fourth major subject dealt with in the legislative recommendations is "accountability."  This is addressed in Section 1116, pages 12 to 16.  FEA proposes a comprehensive accountability system that covers both general accountability tools, including federal mandates, narrative reporting, and potential loss of funds, and a specific three stage intervention process, ultimately leading to state responsibility to intervene after five years if schools or districts fail to implement the systemic changes or fail to show a "positive trend in learning outcomes."

Finally, let me turn to the fourth "issue" - the one that may be of greatest practical interest to you - how can you organize at the local level? 

The starting point is that you read the key documents: the Joint Statement, the "Redefining Accountability" report, and the FEA legislative recommendations.  (And, of course, if you are interested in the background and rationale for much of this, I would also encourage you to read my law review article.) Then, once you are familiar with the recommendations, inform your colleagues back in the local districts about the whole initiative to reframe ESEA to focus on systemic improvements, especially building the capacity of teachers, administrators and parents. 

Next, in August, when your Congressmen and Senators will be on recess and likely be back in their home districts, go to their Town Hall meetings and speak out: explain the problems you run into in your schools and the solutions that should be incorporated into the ESEA reauthorization.  If they do not have a Town Hall meeting, schedule a time to visit with the legislator in his/her local office during the recess.

Organize your colleagues in the local union to call and send letters/e-mails to their own Congressmen and Senators to support FEA's legislative recommendations.  We have a model letter that is available for you.  Also, write letters to the editor of the local newspaper(s) explaining the adverse impact of NCLB, what your needs are, and how ESEA should be amended. 
In addition, take the initiative to contact local/state affiliates of other signers of the Joint Statement in your locality and join together to organize and lobby with them.  This might include, for example, the NEA, NAACP or the local school board, part of NSBA.  There is an unprecedented opportunity for you to work together with other organizations because so many national organizations have already agreed on the same principles for restructuring ESEA by signing onto the Joint Statement.  All of the signing organizations are listed at the end of the Statement.

Let me give you the websites both for my organization, Citizens for Effective Schools, and for FEA: and  All the documents: the Joint Statement, FEA Report, FEA legislative recommendations, and the law review article are available on the websites.

I hope that this has all made sense to you.  Thank you for listening.

Now, I'd like to open it up for questions and comments.

© 2008 Citizens for Effective Schools