No Child Left Behind Fails to Close Achievement Gap

Four years after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, test results show progress in some areas. But many schools are not reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students, and closing that gap may take longer than the law's requirements.

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Four years ago, President George W. Bush signed into law an unprecedented federal plan to rate the nation's public schools based on student test scores in reading and math. That plan, called No Child Left Behind, also set a goal. By 2014, every student regardless of race, ethnicity or income will be proficient in reading and math. Laudable? Yes. Realistic? Many have their doubts. NPR's Claudio Sanchez explains.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: January 8th, 2002, the day President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law was a Monday. The signing ceremony was in Hamilton, Ohio, where he arrived to a hero's welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GEORGE W: Thank you very much.

USA: USA. USA. USA.

SANCHEZ: At Hamilton High School, the president shared the stage with congressional sponsors of the law, including leading Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy. Dennis Malone, a veteran educator and lifelong resident of Hamilton, was in the audience that day listening carefully, when halfway through his speech, President Bush zeroed in on the reason why a tougher federal education law was necessary.

BUSH: We do not want children trapped in schools that will not change and will not teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SANCHEZ: But Malone grew uneasy about what the president was really saying.

BUSH: Every single child, regardless of where they live, how they're raised, the income level of their family, every child receive a first-class education in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SANCHEZ: Of course, all children should get a first-class education, Malone remembers thinking, but today, the troublesome question that comes back is this: How can a school possibly guarantee that by 2014 there won't be any social or class distinctions among children in terms of educational outcomes?

DENNIS MALONE: How do we make all of this happen? Some teachers believe that it's good, that we need to make the change. You're still going to find others who say, `Wow. You know, we really don't need this. We were fine where we were, and, you know, leave us alone.' If folks don't understand why they're being asked to change or if they feel like it's being imposed on them, that's where I think we get resistance. I fall probably somewhere in the middle.

SANCHEZ: Today, Malone is the principal of Hamilton High and his initial misgivings have spread well beyond this working-class community, for good reason, says Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, author of "Class and Schools," a study of the black-white achievement gap.

RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: The notion that with schools alone you can create equal achievement for children of different social backgrounds is one that's not based in any research. It's not based on any experience. It's not based on any true understanding of what the many, many factors that contribute to student achievement are.

SANCHEZ: Like health care, adequate housing and a living wage for poor families. Instead, says Rothstein, No Child Left Behind has propagated a myth.

ROTHSTEIN: The health doesn't matter. The housing doesn't matter. The dysfunctional communities don't matter. None of these things matter. The only thing that matters is whether teachers have high expectations of children. I don't think we can make social policy on the basis of a myth.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, I completely reject that.

SANCHEZ: US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

SPELLINGS: That's the soft bigotry of low expectations that the president talks about. We certainly are not going to address minority kids' issues and educate every single child if we don't believe that we can. And I travel around the country all the time. I see schools who are doing it every single day. I mean, they are going to be on track for proficiency for their kids, many of whom are disadvantaged, by 2013, '14.

SANCHEZ: The government's own data, though, tells a different story based on the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. Reading scores remain flat overall. There have been modest gains in math, but low-income black and Latinos continue to lag significantly behind their white, more affluent peers. It was this achievement gap that the law was supposed to eliminate. In fact, if the gains under No Child Left Behind remain as meager as they've been under No Child Left Behind thus far, at least one major study shows that it'll take three decades to close the gap entirely in math and another two centuries in reading. Schools are simply not improving as quickly as the law requires. That's the reality, says Mike Cohen, a former assistant secretary of Education in the Clinton administration.

MIKE COHEN: When the law clashed with reality, no matter how firmly you were inclined to enforce it, reality wins.

SANCHEZ: Cohen says despite the moral force behind the law and its focus on reducing the gap, there's been race to the bottom in some states. Cohen should know. He now works for Achieve, which advises states on developing rigorous standards and tests.

COHEN: We understand now that most states have set standards that are too low, that if you meet the standards a state has set by the time you leave high school, you may still not be prepared for a 21st century job.

SANCHEZ: Or college, says Cohen, and if you're black, Latino and poor, odds are you're less prepared because you're more likely to attend a struggling school with poorly prepared teachers. Secretary Spellings for her part has spent a lot of time tinkering with the law, giving states more time and discretion to meet key short-term goals like making sure all teachers are qualified. But she bristles at the suggestion that she or the White House are downplaying the gap issue.

SPELLINGS: We're not. No Child Left Behind is all about results, proficiency for every kid by 2013, '14 period.

ROTHSTEIN: Come 2014, there's going to be a day of reckoning.

SANCHEZ: Again Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.

ROTHSTEIN: Either all schools in the country will be labeled as failing or we're going to have to repeal the law because there's no way that schools can eliminate, which is what the law requires, eliminate the achievement gap between children at different social classes by 2014.

SANCHEZ: Congress is unlikely to repeal No Child Left Behind, but Congressman George Miller, Democrat of California, one of the architects of the law, concedes schools cannot close the gap on their own.

GEORGE MILLER: I would love to have No Child Left Behind wrapped in a national health-care policy. I would love No Child Left Behind wrapped in an early childhood education policy of real substance, but this nation hasn't yet committed itself to that kind of education system.

SANCHEZ: To the extent that the federal government can now pressure schools to help poor minority children while they're in their care, No Child Left Behind is a good law, says Miller.

MILLER: Will we have a hundred percent of our children proficient in 2014? Not very likely. Should that be the goal of this nation? Probably so if you really believe in the dignity and the worth of each of these children.

SANCHEZ: The goal and the deadline of No Child Left Behind, says Miller, will in the end prove to be less important than the fundamental changes taking root in many schools and in the way we hold them accountable over the long term. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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