The stated purpose of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was to make every student in the U.S. proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. The way to get there was by identifying and punishing "failing schools" -- those that were unable to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), based on their students' standardized test scores.
But after eight years of test-and-punish reform, even NCLB's supporters are shaking their heads in dismay. Far from bringing every child up to proficiency, U.S. schools appear to be headed for a 100 percent failure rate by 2014, and the so-called achievement gap between white children and children of color (especially African-American males) is growing wider.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who earlier lauded NCLB for its stated goals, told Congress last Wednesday that 82 percent of all schools could now be labeled as "failing" under NCLB rules. The Department of Education currently estimates the number of schools not meeting targets will skyrocket from 37 to 82 percent in 2011, since states have "raised standards" to meet the requirements of the law. Not exactly racing to the top, are we?
The grim news has forced Duncan to re-triangulate. He supported NCLB while serving as Chicago's school CEO. And while he has grown increasingly critical of the current version of NCLB, Duncan's "blueprint" for a reauthorized version contains basically more of the same -- only with "better tests," more "flexibility," and less talk of AYP.
Duncan still heaps praise on NCLB for "shining a light on achievement gaps among minority and low-income students," but now admits, "No Child Left Behind is broken" and needs to be fixed.
"This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed."
Finally, says Duncan,
"We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk."
But isn't that exactly what NCLB is all about -- "shining the light" on failing schools?
By the way, who are these people who've "been in the business of labeling schools as failures," anyway? They should definitely get out of that business. Duncan himself is one of the greatest perpetrators -- although in fairness, he does often substitute the term "dropout factories." In remarks last November, for example, he uses both terms interchangeably.
It's still not clear whether Duncan merely wants to get rid of the name and some of NCLB's window-dressing, or really "fix" it. His call for more flexibility rings hollow. Why? Because his current Race To The Top initiative doles out a thin but desperately needed stream of federal education dollars via competitive grants to states willing to adhere to his prescribed, mandated strategies. These include closing thousands of "failing schools," firing teachers in mass, and turning schools over to private management companies. In other words, it's still all about compliance, punishment, and top-down reform.
Duncan's "blueprint" aims its sights on schools and districts with the highest concentrations of poor kids, African-Americans and Latinos. It's those schools, where standardized test scores are, on average the lowest, that will still be targeted for closure and privatization. There is virtually nothing in NCLB that will help improve those schools or support their teachers.
NCLB's stated goal is to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. But at this rate, if we stay the course, we should reach 100 percent failure rate some time within the next three years. It will solve one of Duncan's problems. There won't any longer be a need to label "failing schools," since they will all be failing.
Congratulations are in order, I suppose.