Study Calls State of U.S. Education into Question

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings gave some states a break in meeting the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. Kate Grossman, of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Andrew Rotherham, of the Virginia Board of Education, discuss new standards and an alarming new study about high school graduation rates.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Nobody likes to get a report card. But that failing grade can be an important red flag to teachers. But what happens when it is the school that's failing? A new report released today by a non-profit group showed that only about half of the public schools' students in the country's largest cities actually graduate from high school.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was intended to raise the red flag about poorly performing schools, especially those that serve students with special educational needs. But so many schools are failing that last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a new pilot program to relax the law's provisions for some states.

Joining us to talk about these changes to No Child Left Behind are Kate Grossman, editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Andrew Rotherham of the blog Eduwonk. He's also a member of the Virginia Board of Education. It's an appointed body that sets curriculum standards for Virginia schools.

Thank you both for joining me.

Ms. KATE GROSSMAN (Editorial Writer, Chicago Sun-Times): Thanks for having me.

Mr. ANDREW ROTHERHAM (Member, Virginia Board of Education): Thank you.

MARTIN: Andrew, start with you. How big of a deal is this?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: This is a pretty big deal because what the administration is acknowledging here is two things. One, actually, they're acknowledging that No Child Left Behind is not likely to be reauthorized during this Congress, and so it's going to continue into 2009 or 2010. And that means that the administration is going to have, as the best they can, take steps to address some of the problems through regulatory action, like what they're doing.

And then the second reason it's significant is there has been a concern that the law has identified a lot of schools as needing improvement, and that's actually not surprising against the backdrop of the educational challenges we face in this country. There are a lot of schools that do need to do better, but that states just don't have the capacity to really intervene and turn around a lot of those schools that are struggling.

And so, this is going to allow them not to identify fewer schools or change the accountability rules, but to really drill down on one subset of schools, and really take more dramatic action, and really encourage the states to come up with different ideas on how to do that.

MARTIN: Andrew, I'm going to get you to break down for me exactly what this new pilot program would entail. But first, I'm going to ask Kate - you've been covering No Child Left Behind for years as an education writer before you switched to the editorial side. How was No Child received by the various school systems in the Chicago area?

Ms. GROSSMAN: It's not a popular law. People think it's really about data keeping and not as much about really doing the hard work that's required to deal with the poverty and the other issues that make these schools, quote/unquote, "failing."

MARTIN: But when you say people, what people are we talking about? The administration has long maintained that, you know, parents want this. Parents want the accountability. It's that, forgive me for using this term because I know it's a loaded one, but it's educational bureaucrats who don't want the accountability. So when you say it's unpopular, who are you talking about?

Ms. GROSSMAN: I don't know a lot of parents who like No Child Left Behind. I don't know a lot of principals who like No Child Left Behind. I don't know a lot of teachers who like it. So I don't just mean bureaucrats. I mean real life people who are in these schools and struggling to improve them.

MARTIN: Andrew Rotherham, tell me about what this new pilot program would do. And how would it change the, sort of, the current regime?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, what it'll do is it'll allow up to 10 states to proceed with different ways of holding schools accountable and intervening in their lowest performing schools. And what that's going to look like remains to be determined, because those 10 states - states that are fully in compliance with the law right now will be eligible to apply. So that's going to 20 some odd states would be able to apply.

And then, those states would be putting ideas, saying for instance, that they want to instead of intervening in schools that are just missing the performance targets by a little bit, they want to really overhaul, say, their lowest 10 percent of schools that are missing them by a lot. Or they want to do some kind of a program to radically overhaul their instruction and curriculum in one subset of schools.

There's lots of different things that the states could come forward to do. The key sort of barrier to entry to participate in the pilot - in addition to being in compliance with the law is going to be have some sort of a plan that you do something you're not doing now to do more for your lowest performing schools.

MARTIN: What is this change responding to? Kate's told us that in a lot places this is just not a popular law at all. You know, you hear the criticism that it encourages schools to sort of teach to the test, that it sucks all the creativity out of the sort of art of teaching. You know? As it were, but the administration has defended it ardently. Education Secretary Spellings has defended it ardently. So what are they responding to in making these changes?

Ms. GROSSMAN: They're responding to the very real fear that every school ultimately will be labeled as failing. You know? In Illinois, for example, we have - in 2007, we had 24 percent of our schools labeled as in need of improvement or failing. That's up four percentage points from last year. And it's every year, it's going to get - more and more schools are going to get swept up because each year, the goals get harder.

So this year, you had to have 55 percent of your kids at grade level. Excuse me, in 2007, and in 2008, you have to have 62.5 percent of your kids at grade level. And it's going to jump every year in Illinois and in most states. So ultimately, you're going to have more than half of your school swept up under this. And that's a pretty imprecise measure. Where do you turn? If everybody's failing, who do you help? That's why I think this pilot makes sense, because you want to focus on the schools that are in the most dire straits, rather than just try to help everyone in a light treatment for everybody.

MARTIN: Andrew, what do you think?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I think it's important, first of all, to remember the backdrop. I mean, the fact that we're having a conversation where we're saying people are concerned because schools are being held accountable for having six of ten students at grade level. I think most parents would be surprised to know that the standards are just six in ten. They want their kid to be at grade level and certainly don't want their kid to be one of those four in ten.

In this country right now, minority students trail white students at the high school level, by on average, about four grade levels. That's according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We have a dropout rate for minority students of around 50 percent at dropping out of high school.

What the administration was really responding to was what Kate talked about. It's that you've got a lot of schools - some of which need to do a little bit better, some of which need to do a lot better. And to find ways to allow states to encourage them to come up with ways to really focus on those ones that need to do a lot better. But it's important that as we do that, and this is going to be a key thing to watch, you have to remember these achievement gaps we talk about, they actually exist in all kids of communities.

There's a sort of misunderstanding that people think in affluent suburban communities, Africa-American students, Hispanic students, so forth, do significantly better than they do elsewhere. And in fact, you see these same kinds of gaps in all communities. So it's a great idea to encourage folks to really drill on schools that most radically need improvement now. But it's very important that as we do that, we don't lose these kids in the suburbs, particularly minority kids in the suburbs who are struggling, we don't lose them in the shuffle.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Kate Grossman of the Chicago Sun times, and Andrew Rotherham, who writes for the blog, Eduwonk, about changes to the No Child Left Behind law.

Andrew, speak about that, because as Kate pointed out, a lot of the people have been critical of No Child Left Behind, say it's just sort of teaches to the test, and so forth. It's just about record keeping and not about teaching. On the other hand, that the problem with the status quo before - the criticism was that it would allow kids to hide. It would allow schools to hide if they were not doing right by certain kids, like minority kids, or kids with special educational needs, or disabled kids.

If they were in otherwise kind of high performing schools, so how do these provisions prevent that from happening?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: That's what everybody's waiting to see. And the secretary's established a peer review process. And to her credit, the last time they did something like this, they also set up a peer review process. And it turned out to be very rigorous - having most people consider it a success, including people like me who'd been actually skeptical of it in the early going. So if they have a similarly rigorous process this time, I think you'll see proposals to get through that don't sort of lesson the imperative of improving the performance for disadvantaged kids wherever they may live.

MARTIN: Kate, we've talked a lot about the image that people have of the law. Is there any data that shows how kids are actually performing under this new regiment? Is there any data in Chicago that shows whether kids who were in under performing schools, if they transferred, how did they do? If schools were listed as failing, did they get any support? Do you see what I'm saying? Is there any data to show whether there's been actual effect of the law in the five years that it's been in effect?

Ms. GROSSMAN: That's a very hard question to answer, which you wouldn't expect. But the reason it's hard to answer is because what's happened in Illinois, as in a lot of other states, is that the targets have changed. So over the last five or six years, the test itself has changed. The testing conditions have changed. The cut scores have changed with the net effect of basically making it easier to pass the test. So if you look at the results, we see improvement, particularly at the elementary level - much less so than at the high school level.

So you want to look at it and say, hey great! We're improving. And I think there is probably some genuine improvement, but it's very hard to tell because basically all the conditions have changed. You don't have good data and yet again this year, you know, in the testing season now, there are some new changes. So we won't, again, have another sort of clear data set to evaluate, to compare 2008 to 2002. So it's basically, we don't know if the law - if we've improved.

MARTIN: Andrew, what do you think about this? Do you think there's any credible data that shows whether there have been improvements under the law or not?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: I think it is just too early to tell, and the claims of both the law's most strident critics and most strident supporters are both wildly overblown. This is a generation-long effort, and we really won't be able to tell for a few more years - to even really see what has been the sort of aggregate effect. There are some states where it looks like things are doing better, some states where it looks like things are doing the same.

I mean, I think it's much too soon to try to have these definitive judgments based on performance. What I - for my money, the most important thing the law has done is it has really sparked a national debate about the achievement gap, about educational disequities, and so forth, and the problems that we face. And that's a hugely healthy thing and that it's created a sense of urgency. How that translates into improvements in teaching and learning and improvements in educational outcomes, as I said, we won't be able to really start thinking about that in a really rigorous way for a few more years.

MARTIN: Andrew Rotherham writes for the blog Eduwonk, and he is co-founder and co-director of Education Sector. It's a policy think-tank, and he joined us from the studios at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We were also joined by Kate Grossman. She's an editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and she joined us from the studios at the University of Chicago.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us, and keep us posted if you would.

Ms. GROSSMAN: Thank you very much.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Thank you for having us.

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