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We Must Do More Than Merely Avoid the NCLB Train Wreck

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The Obama administration's decision to allow states to request waivers from No Child Left Behind was a step in the right direction, but only a baby step. Four in five schools across the country will be deemed "failing" this coming year if nothing stops the "train wreck" that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will inflict upon the nation's schools. These include schools in which the vast majority of students are proficient in math and English, as well as schools in which students, teachers, and principals are making real progress in the face of formidable challenges: concentrated poverty, large numbers of students with special-needs, and state budget cuts that have severely reduced the resources needed to address the obstacles to learning.

Duncan's characterization of NCLB is apt; a recent National Research Council study found that 10 years of test-based accountability "reform" has delivered no significant progress for students. Throughout the country, pressure to improve test scores has led to an increase in intense test preparation. In many cases, this has led to less time for actual learning and reduced the ability of schools to respond to the learning needs of the most disadvantaged students. Instead of focusing on how to deliver high quality instruction schools have become preoccupied with how to produce increases in test scores. Reports of widespread cheating on state exams appearing in city after city are increasingly viewed not as isolated instances of teacher misbehavior, but as a consequence of high-stakes testing.

To avert this "train wreck," the Education Department is offering waivers to states to avoid forcing a massive number of schools to submit to the NCLB sanctions that kick in when school districts fail to make "adequate yearly progress." These so-called waivers, however, amount to little more than a temporary reprieve and do not provide the change in direction that is needed. Under the Race to the Top (RTT) formula, the department is demanding that states evaluate teachers based in significant part on student test scores, and in their quest to "turn around" struggling schools RTT requires districts to fire teachers and principals who work in struggling schools. As education policy expert Diane Ravitch recently asserted, this should be seen as a Race to the Bottom for these schools and the low-income students they disproportionately serve. Most districts have no teachers or administrators prepared to take over failing schools, and not a single state has produced a reliable formula for evaluating teachers based on student test scores. In his well-regarded Learning Matters series, PBS education commentator John Merrow describes the rigid demands of RTT, collectively, as "An Act of War" against instilling in children a love of learning.

A growing number of leaders in education are beginning to openly speak out against these policies. Montana's superintendent of public instruction, Denise Juneau, has rejected both NCLB's requirements and Education Department waiver demands. There are signs that other states may follow her lead. California's superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, has demanded an unconditional waiver, citing excessive costs, until Congress and the president determine how to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

It is time for the federal government to go further than to simply allow waivers under the law. Federal education policy should be focused on helping schools improve, not on punishing them. It should support the "whole student" vision of education that Juneau and others have championed, based on standards that go far beyond test scores. Most importantly, during the worst recession to hit this country in the last seventy years, we must acknowledge the need for schools and local government to address the impediments to learning posed by poverty. This does not mean allowing poverty to serve as an excuse for poor academic performance, but it does mean that we must do more to support the schools that serve the most disadvantaged children so that they can focus on authentic evidence of learning and be held accountable for student outcomes.

Ultimately, the federal government must embrace a broader, bolder approach to education that includes high-quality early education to narrow large gaps in school readiness, health and nutrition supports to keep children in class and alert, and enriching afterschool and summer activities to build on school-year gains resulting from the work of those great teachers. Anything less will keep us from achieving the educational progress our society so desperately needs.