For "No Child Left Behind" to Work, New
Federal Education Role Needed
by Gary M. Ratner
Washington Council of Lawyers News Forum
Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc. (CES) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit
advocacy organization of lawyers and other citizens committed to
achieving the goal of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind
Act of 2001" - academic competence for all students, including
the poor and racial/ethnic minorities. President Bush recognizes,
however, that the Act, alone, is insufficient to accomplish its
goal. As the President avowed in his State of the Union Address,
only weeks after signing the Act: "We must upgrade our teacher
colleges and teacher training and launch a major recruiting drive
with a great goal for America: a quality teacher in every classroom."
The chasm between the Act's goals and current student achievement
is huge. Projecting from a National Assessment of Educational Progress
sample, about 70 percent of the 47 million public school students
are below "Proficient," i.e., grade level, in reading
and 75 percent below it in math. Among the approximately 8 million
black and 7 million Hispanic students, about 90 percent lack "Proficiency"
in reading and math. About 8 million poor students (50 percent)
lack even "Basic," i.e., rudimentary, skills at their
respective grade levels.
The need for major improvements in teacher quality arises now
because, through the Act and the National Education Goals established
in 1990, America has immensely raised its historical education goal,
from providing an academically rigorous education only to the minority
of students destined for college - the "academic" track
- to providing such high level education to virtually all children.
However, America has not correspondingly increased the capacity
of "general" and "vocational" track teachers
to teach at that level.
As the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found:
"Most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning
demanded by the new reforms - not because they do not want to, burt
because they do not know how, and the systems in which they work
do not support them in doing so." The biggest obstacle to the
President's goal is that most teachers have not historically been
expected to, and cannot now, effectively teach a challenging, academic
curriculum at their grade level.
Over the last decade, States have responded to the new education
goal by creating the "standards, assessments and accountability"
movement. They have mandated academic performance standards for
all students, state tests to assess whether students satisfy the
standards, and sanctions for failure to pass the test, such as publishing
school ratings, transferring staff, and denying high school graduation.
That movement and the Act conceive the fundamental obstacle to widespread
proficiency as insufficient pressure on teachers and students. As
a result, the accountability movement pressures teachers to teach,
and students to learn, a narrow curriculum (and test-taking techniques)
so students can "pass" new state tests, usually far below
The "accountabiluty movement" is totally inadequate
to reach the Act's goal. The percentage of "proficient"
public students nationwide (though increased modestly over the last
decade) remains extremely low: only 16 to 25 percent of students
are proficient in math and only 29 to 39 percent are proficient
in reading. Even Texas, accountability's flagship, increased proficiency
only 5 percent in reading from 1992 to 1998, with 70 percent of
Texas' public school students still below "Proficient."
While math proficiency increased by 12 percent at grade 4 and 6
percent at grade 8 from 1992-2000, about 75 percent of Texas public
students are still not "Proficient" in math.
What is needed is a fundamental change in national education strategy
to match the new education mission by enabling all teachers nationwide
to effectively teach diverse students a rigorous curriculum and
enabling families to effectively support their children's high achievement.
Specifically, most of our 3 million existing teachers need intensive
training in subject matter knowledge, individualized mentoring in
teaching skills,and preparation time with colleagues. Traditional
professional development workshops, unrelated to immediately improving
classroom teaching, should be abolished, except for teachers of
demonstrated competence. Tens of thousands of principals and superintendents
must be trained how to lead their teachers, parents, and communities
to vastly raise their expectations and student learning. Teachers
and administrators unable or unwilling, after training, to perform
effectively must be replaced with capable personnel.
Education colleges need to supplant their widespread 10-12 week
student teaching programs with a minimum 30 week, academically integrated
and closely supervised clinical experience, and arts and sciences
departments need to provide all teacher candidates solid grounding
in their academic subjects, so all future teachers can teach competently
upon graduation. A comprehensive nationwide program, including financlial
and mentoring incentives, needs to be instituted to recruit and
retain only academically skilled teachers and administrators for
all public schools, especially in poor urban and rural areas.
Finally, we need to greatly expand federal comprehensive literacy
and other public and private programs to educate parents/guardians
about the specific content standards their children must meet and
what they should do at home and at school to support high level
student learning. We need to provide families with adult education
and parenting skills to enable them to motivate and assist their
children to learn. And for all students without families able to
provide such support, surrogate adult mentors and tutors need to
be offered through programs like Big Brothers-Big Sisters.
Only the federal government has the legal and financial capability
to institute these systemic changes nationwide. Enabling all public
school teachers and administrators to be well trained and competent
to meet the new mission and empowering all families/surrogates to
provide effective support for high student achievement should become
the new, central federal role in schooling. States and localities
should continue to make policy on curriculum content, discipline,
facilities, and similar matters and administer the schools day-to-day.
CES' immediate task is to educate the media, politicians, and
the public at large that to actually attain the goal of the "No
Child Left Behind Act of 2001," federal, state, and local governments
need to make implementing these changes the unwavering, long-term,
principal focus of school reform. CES, however, needs your help
in getting the message out to friends, colleagues, legislators and
departments of education, business leaders, and other key groups
of citizens nationwide. Please visit our website at www.citizenseffectiveschools.org
for more information about CES, its mission, and how to join. Please
also feel free to call, write, or email me to talk about how you
could contribute to CES' work to educate and mobilize the public
and to make systemic changes needed to raise virtually all students
to academic competence.
Gary Ratner has been a member of the Washington
Council of Lawyers for a number of years. He began research
and writing on school reform issues thirty years ago as a
legal services lawyer, concerned that poor and minority children
in Boston public schools were not learning basic skills and
were falling further below grade level every year they stayed
in school. In 1985, he published in the Texas Law Review the
leading article seeking to establish that urban public schools
have a legal duty to effectively educate all children in basic
skills, focusing on the need for failing schools to adopt
the characteristics of effective schools.
Prior to becoming Executive Director of
CES, Mr. Ratner worked as Associate General Counsel for Litigation
of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Deputy
Executive Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health, Education
and Welfare, General Counsel and Director of Litigation of
the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and Associate
Director for Litigation of Greater Boston Legal Services.
He can be reached at (301) 469-8000, firstname.lastname@example.org, and
8209 Hamilton Spring Ct., Bethesda, MD 20817.