Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind: Schools React
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: rape in the black community. A young filmmaker goes behind closed doors.
But first, we're going to continue our conversation about No Child Left Behind. We just heard from two education reporters about how some school systems around the country are reacting to the law.
Joining us now to discuss some of the broader implications is Andrew Rotherham of the think tank Education Sector. He joins us from his home in Earlysville, Virginia.
Welcome, Andrew. I'm so glad you can talk to us.
Mr. ANDREW ROTHERHAM (Co-founder, Education Sector): Thank you. It's nice to be here.
MARTIN: Give me the big picture. You know, the purpose of No Child Left Behind was to make sure that all kids are learning and that the lack of progress by some kids isn't hidden behind the accomplishments of the other kids. By that standard, is it working?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: You know, it's really too early, and I think you heard that from the previous two guests - the reporters. It's really too early to answer that question, is it working? This is a large federal law. It touches a lot of areas in education. It affects the whole educational system, which, you know, is 100,000 schools spread out over 14,000 school districts serving almost 50 million students.
And so, in this short period of time we're talking about, it's just too early to answer that question of is it working or not. And advocates on both sides, both the law's critics and its staunchest proponents are going to try to argue that it is working or that it isn't working. But it's just too soon to tell. I think there's some indicators of sort of modest success and progress. But I think it's much too early for cheering, and it's much too early to say that this somehow hasn't work. These things - these big social policy changes just take more time than that.
MARTIN: Well, just from your read of the thing, what do you think is working? What do you think is not working? Or perhaps, maybe a better way to put it would be what do you think the data shows about where the progress is? And what do you think the shortcomings are?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I think the biggest thing that I would point to as a success is we are now finally having a national conversation about the achievement gap. Most Americans are unaware of just how high variants our public education system is. We have tremendous public schools that would be the envy of anywhere in the world. We also have public schools that are the envy of no one, and they're often just a few miles from one another. And the result is we have a system that minority students graduate on time from high school -maybe one out two or about 50 percent.
And we have grade - achievement gaps of up to four grade levels, separating white and minority students by the time they're 17 years of age. And these are huge gaps. These aren't just sort of small things that affect people in little ways. These are big gaps that really affect people's life chances.
And No Child Left Behind has forced attention on that because of the rules that the reporters on the first panel were talking about, and just because it's forced a national conversation about this. That's a huge success, and I think what you see with the numbers is you're seeing some real modest bumps among the lowest achieving students, and they're moving up. That's the success.
The problems - there's a bunch. They range from little things in the federal law like this that just, you know, were designed - aren't working as they were intended - for instance, like the tutoring provisions in the law or the public school's choice revisions to big questions around, sort of, does it create reverse incentives or are schools focusing too much on one set of students at the expense of another, and so forth. Some of those questions, it just depends where you come down. Other ones are technical things that when the law comes up fro reauthorization later this year or next year or in 2009 that Congress can take care of.
MARTIN: What do you - what about the big criticisms that the reporters talked about earlier, which is that the law focuses so much on reading and math scores, that many critics says it forces schools to short change things that really make you a whole human being that, particularly, that were perhaps even more effective as teaching tools for kids with some different aptitudes? Were you concerned about that, that the law has created too narrow a definition of what a good education is?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: You know, we want to be very careful. There's only certain things you can measure in public policy. And the law focuses on measuring how students are doing in reading and math, which I think most people at - want schools to do much more than that for students. But at the same time, most people want schools to do that, sort of an issue of how necessary versus how sufficient. The problem is this debate - as it gets up played out politically -it's often framed as though, sort of, public education was in some kind of an Eden-like state prior to No Child Left Behind, which then, you know, came along and ate this apple…
MARTIN: Messed it up. Yeah.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: …and we've had this fall. When, in fact, you know, a lot of the problems that we're talking about are simply problems of the laws laying bare. A lot of schools were having trouble teaching students in a really powerful way that went beyond math and reading. Before, low-income students were not getting sort of a rich curriculum that has been taken away from them since the law was enacted. What the law is really doing more than anything else is sort of laying bare the challenges we face as a country educationally that we have a system that worked well for us in the 20th century, but is really mismatched what we need our publics to do today.
MARTIN: What about the gaming the system argument that Kate Grossman brought up, the concern that some states are just playing games with the way these things are measured, and so we're really not getting accurate information about achievement? What do you think? Do you think that might be true?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Yes. It's definitely true, and states played games with their numbers before No Child Left Behind came along. They played games with their numbers during the Clinton administration when we were trying to implement the law that was the predecessor to No Child Left Behind. It's par for the course. You do what you can to combat it. It means you should take these games with a grain of salt - particularly areas where states can do things that aren't so transparent like around the cut scores for their tests, the composition of the tests, how difficult they are and so forth. And you want to take it with a grain a salt. But again, this is stuff that's been going for a long time. It's not unique to No Child Left Behind.
MARTIN: Very, very quickly, Andrew, does the bill get reauthorized in your opinion?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: The politics are really challenging. This is a bill that splits both parties. You have liberals for it, liberals against it. Conservatives for it, and conservatives against it. It's the presidential campaign season. The administration's working hard to try to get it reauthorized, but I think it's going to be very difficult for them to get it done before the presidential election. But the money will keep flowing whether or not the law gets reauthorized and so…
MARTIN: All right.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: …stay tuned.
MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much. Andrew Rotherham is the co-founder of Education Sector, an education policy think tank. He joined us from his home in Earlysville, Virginia. Thanks so much.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Thank you.
MARTIN: For a link to Andrew Rotherham's blog, Eduwonk, please go to our Web site. That's npr.org/tellmemore.
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