Saturday, February 10, 2007


Thought I would pass along (to 4LAKids) a paper I wrote for a UCLA grad school of ed course I took on NCLB. It's my view on NCLB but also the views of many others about its reauthorization.


Scott Phelps
Member of the Board of Education,
Pasadena Unified School District
• Former Director, Science, Engineering and Technology Academy, John Muir H. S.
Professor, Astronomy and Physics,
Citrus College and University of La Verne
Faculty Advisor,
Claremont Graduate University and Mt. St. Mary's College, Teacher Education programs

FROM THE CONCLUSION: The problem is with the whole premise of NCLB. Business-style accountability remains a largely unproven method of improving educational outcomes. Scores on independent measures of student achievement have shown little to no improvement. More low-income and minority students are dropping out, and more teachers (often the best ones) are leaving the profession. Life outcomes cannot be said to have improved either as the percentage of people living without health insurance has increased, the percentage of people living in poverty has increased, the distribution of wealth has become more concentrated amongst the few, etc.

Despite the record of lack of success in K-12, the reauthorization of NCLB simply calls for more accountability and more parental choice. This heavy focus on the belief in the power of business-style accountability and parental choice to affect change is far too narrow to adequately address the complexities of education and human motivation. Very few parents take advantage of the choice option of NCLB, and very few seats are available anyway in the higher-performing schools of large urban districts.

The only reason I can see that the current administration doesn’t focus on the enormous disparities in

(a) teacher quality and state and local spending between school districts serving the greatest number of minority kids and those serving the fewest ,
(b) Title I spending across the states and ,
(c) family income that the administration doesn’t want public schools to succeed.

It wants to privatize them.

Revising NCLB

Scott Phelps

Introduction: faulty premises

The false premise of this law is evident even in its name. Calling a law “No Child Left Behind” that applies only to schools implies that children are left behind by schools. It is a masterful framing of the issue that leaves no place for all the many factors we know that correlate with low academic achievement, things like family income, mother’s education level, ethnicity, location of the school (inner city or suburb), etc. By ignoring the factors that are well known to correlate with the issue, the law sets up schools to fail. In fact, the first US Secretary of Education in charge of enforcing the law, Rod Paige, declared “We are not going to fund failing schools.”1 He gave this response when asked how the US Department of Education planned to scale up small successes to the whole nation. In other words, the fundamental design was to punish schools that were not performing. How would that “Leave No Child Behind?” Well, the law includes provisions that allow parents to transfer their children from lower performing schools to higher performing schools. There are a few problems with that though. One is that the vast majority of parents of students in lower performing schools do not avail themselves of that option. For example, during the 2003-04 school year only approximately 38,000 students across the U. S. took advantage of this option. 2 Further, when given the chance to choose, parents do not choose schools based on achievement scores alone. Their decisions also factor in things like the school attendance area that they live in, the convenience of the commute, where their kids’ friends are, where they went to school as kids themselves, the sports or music programs, etc. Secondly, no provisions were made to expand the capacities of the higher performing schools which were of course over subscribed. By designing a law to punish lower performing schools without effective provisions for giving their studies better options, the law reveals its underlying purpose: To erode support for public education rather than help public education improve.

The real agenda: privatization

The history of the government’s failure to fully fund the law is another indictment of its true purpose. Over its history, only 60% of the funding authorized under Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been provided, with the current fiscal year’s funding of Title I being 50% of the authorized amount.3 If a law were truly designed to leave no child behind it would be fully funded. Quite recent actions of the current US Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, reveal the underlying agenda. She recently announced that the President would ask Congress to provide $100 million to provide students across the country the opportunity to attend private schools called “Opportunity Scholarships,”4 building on the $14 million that Congress is already spending on such “scholarships” for the students in Washington, D. C. They are in fact vouchers of public money to be used for students to attend private schools. What is wrong with that you might say? Well, her announcement came just one week after the results of a major study were released by her department. This study5 indicated that there is no appreciable academic achievement benefit (as measured by their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the so-called “Nation’s Report Card”) for poor children when they attend private schools or charter schools. The study looked at some 6,000-7,000 public schools and 500-600 private schools and found no significant difference in the achievement gap for public and private school students. Poorer kids still score lower than richer kids by roughly the same amount regardless of what kind of school they attend. One would think that such a definitive result would cause the government to reexamine the fundamental premise of the law, i.e., that some schools are the ones leaving some children behind. Nope, the next week, Secretary Spellings announces a plan to use public funds so that more poor kids can attend private schools! Further evidence for the law's real goal is found in the government’s response to the damage done to schools by Katrina. Rather than helping the schools rebuild, the government proposed providing vouchers for the students to attend private schools.6 What is remarkable about the government’s pushing of vouchers is that there is no evidence that they work. Examples exist in this county and internationally that document the failure of vouchers to ameliorate the achievement gap. In one glaring large scale example, after 10 years of trying them New Zealand had to repair the damage from them because the conditions in the schools that the native Maori kids had to go to were so substandard.7 This is of course eerily familiar with the conditions in our inner city schools.

Furthering segregation

Since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed legal segregation, U. S. courts in various areas have required school districts to racially integrate their schools, often by forced bussing. This led to the flight of white and more affluent families from districts that had significant minority populations. Today, the schools of the country are very segregated.8 NCLB promotes further segregation by measuring schools on the test scores of each significant subgroup in the school. The fewer subgroups a school has, the fewer number of goals the school has to meet. Hence the law makes it easier for more racially homogeneous schools and harder for more racially heterogeneous schools to avoid being labeled “failing.”9 As more racially heterogeneous schools get labeled “failing” more affluent parents, who are by correlation more white parents, take their children to more racially homogeneous schools that are not labeled “failing.” Segregation thus increases.

A non-partisan view

The Center on Education Policy is a national independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools. As part of their mission to “help citizens make sense of the conflicting opinions and perceptions about public education and create the conditions that will lead to better public schools” CEP has issued a report called, “Ten Big Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Public Schools.”10 The ten effects are as follows:

1. Test scores are rising.

2. More time is being spent on reading and math, but “71% of districts are reducing time on other subjects.” Almost 100% of high poverty districts require a specific amount of time each day for reading in elementary schools.

3. Increased use of test data is driving greater alignment of curriculum and instruction with standards and tests.

4. In schools not making AYP for 5 consecutive years, the requirement that they be “restructured” under NCLB has been met with increased efforts to improve curriculum, quality of staff, and leadership, but very few state takeovers or re-forming of regular schools into charter schools.

5. 88% of districts had all of their core academic teachers “highly qualified” under NCLB by the target date of June 30, 2006.

6. Students are taking a lot more tests.

7. Schools are paying more attention to the achievement of traditionally underperforming students such as low income, ethnic minority, English language learners and special education students.

8. The percent of schools on “needs improvement” (schools not making AYP for at least 2 years) has leveled off to about 10% of all schools.

9. The federal government is playing a larger role in education.

10. NCLB has elements of an unfunded mandate. 36 of 50 states reported lacking sufficient staff to implement NCLB’s requirements. 80% of districts reported absorbing costs such as administration of tests, attending to “needs improvement” schools and monitoring the highly qualified status of teachers. Federal money has stagnated so that in 2005-2006, two-thirds of districts received no increase or lost money from the government compared with 2004-2005.

California School Boards Association view

In the California School Boards Association Winter 2006 “California Schools” magazine,11 an article lists five basic problems with NCLB:

1. NCLB requires 95% student participation for every subgroup, although in some states like California parents can opt out and districts have little control over participation because of absences. There is no positive or negative incentive for parents and children to take the test.

2. AYP is based on meeting a threshold of success on one test. Multiple measures are needed, such as California’s growth model.

3. AYP sanctions can be for one subgroup at the school while all others pass, and AYP does not reflect where the school started out.

4. All students are expected to perform equally with no provisions for special education students or English language learners for example.

5. NCLB is an unfunded mandate. In 2005-2006 Title I funds from the Federal Government were $12.7 billion while $20.5 billion was authorized.

National School Boards Association view

The National School Boards Association has formulated nine recommendations for fixing NCLB. 12 These are as follows:

1. Students with Limited English Proficiency – Districts can use alternate assessments or individualized measurements of progress based on making specific gains toward meeting state standards and determining AYP for up to 3 years.

2. Students with Disabilities – IEP teams will determine whether alternate assessments are appropriate for individual students with the parents’ consent. Test scores from alternate assessments can be counted as proficient toward AYP so long as the number of students counted this way does not exceed 3% of all test takers.

3. Multiple Assessments – States will have the option to count the higher score achieved by a student who is assessed more than once on the same content prior to the start of the next school year for AYP.

4. Growth Measures – States will credit schools for the progress students make from one year to the next on meeting state standards when determining AYP.

5. Multiple Subgroups – Students belonging to multiple subgroups will be counted in each subgroup as an equal fraction totaling one student toward AYP.

6. Same Subgroup – Schools and districts will apply sanctions only when the same subgroup fails to make AYP in the same subject or indicator for 2 consecutive years or more.

7. Aligned Sanctions with Need – Specific sanctions, i.e., restructuring, will be better aligned with a need for school-wide improvement interventions.

8. Aligned Sanctions with Needs – School choice and Supplementation Education Services (SES) sanctions will be available only to those students that belonged to a subgroup and failed to make AYP and were themselves unable to make AYP.

9. Aligned Specific Sanctions with Funding – States will delay implementation of restructuring schools or districts in years when Title I Funds are not increased by at least $2.5 billion and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds are not consistent with the authorized levels in the 2004 reauthorized IDEA.

House Resolution 5709

NSBA has worked with Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) and supports his bill, House Resolution 5709, the “No Child Left Behind Improvement Act of 2006.” The act consists of 40 provisions affecting NCLB. It was introduced by Representative Young in the House of Representatives on June 28, 2006. The legislation is grouped into four areas. The first area is measuring Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The second is state flexibility granted by the US Department of Education. The third is implementing sanctions. While the first three areas generally reflect the ideas contained in the 9 NSBA recommendations above, the fourth area is unique, and applies to Title I students in nonpublic schools.: “The bill authorizes students enrolled in non-public (private) schools who receive Title I services to be given the same assessments as public school students; and gives states the option to withhold Title I support to the non-public schools if their Title I students do not make AYP and perform at lower levels than their counterparts in the area’s public schools for three years or more.”13 This section would do more to change the debate than any other single thing. As the major study referred to earlier shows (see References number 5), the achievement gap is just as prevalent in private schools, yet they currently escape blame and sanctions for this while at the same time receiving Title I funds because they don’t have to take the state tests that public schools have to take. In short they have less accountability than public schools do for the use of their Title I funds. If they were required to take the same tests as public schools, their inherent public relations advantage would cease for they would show the same achievement gap (again see References number 5). Given the power of wealthy private schools via their supporters’ influence over politicians, this section is unlikely to be retained in any reauthorization bill.

System validity problems

There are many validity problems with the system that NCLB has created. These have been well documented by the directors of UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation Standards and Student Testing (CRESST).14 They looked at the state’s progress towards meeting NCLB’s goals and noted the following three main problems.

Choose your own testing difficulty

Review of 46 States showed a large variation in the percentage of schools making AYP on state tests even within the same general geographic area. For example, 23% of Alabama and Florida schools made AYP in 2004 while over 70% of North Carolina and Mississippi schools did and more than 90% of Louisiana and Texas schools did. When the NAEP scores of these states are looked at, this wide variation cannot be explained by variable student performance as in 2005, none of these six states exceeded 30% proficient or above in NAEP fourth grade reading and the total range on this test was much narrower, only 12 percentage points (18% to 30%).

Choose your own proficiency levels

States have reacted in primarily three ways to NCLB’s mandate of 100% proficiency by 2014. Four states have chosen straight-line trajectories. 19 States have chosen trajectories that have straight lines with plateaus, or stair-step trajectories. 24 States including California chose back loaded stair-step trajectories, where only modest straight line increases are required in early years and much larger gains in later years.

Choose your own subgroup sizes

States get to choose the number (N) of students required to create a subgroup that then has to meet AYP. Seven states selected between 5 and 20 students as the minimum size while the majority of the rest selected N’s between 30-40 students. This problem has surfaced in news articles in the last couple years.15

The nature of assessment

One large criticism of NCLB is that it relies exclusively on the states’ use of multiple-choice tests that measure student performance but do not assist with the improvement of student learning. Why is that, you may ask? At the 2005 CRESST conference in a session on learning from the history of assessment, all four of the presenters agreed that formative assessments that support learning require money. 16 In the early 1990’s the United States attempted to develop performance assessments, “Tasks that were worth doing in their own right,” for example, California’s Golden State exams. However, two factors apparently contributed to their demise and the United States returned to primarily multiple-choice tests. One is that performance assessments are more expensive. Another is that ideologies such as concepts of fixed intelligence have gotten in the way. The presenters recommended developing assessments for learning, not just assessments of learning.

Recent developments

Changes in Supplementary Educational Services (SES) are proposed

The US Department of Education Inspector General has issued a report in November of 2006 recommending that the money for SES should be allocated in a changed way to focus on academic proficiency rather than family income and has listed four recommendations in their report. In response, the National School Board Association has reiterated its four recommendations about usage of SES. 17

Business-style measures are proposed

The National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) new commission on the skills of the American work force has released a report called, “Tough Choices or Tough Times” on December 19, 2006.18 They recommend a complete overhaul of the United States education system and list 11 recommendations:

1. States should assume control over local school budgets.

2. Schools should be operated by independent contractors.

3. Local district office staff would write performance contracts with independent contractors.

4. Schools would have complete discretion over their budgets, staffing schedules, organization, and management.

5. More money should be given for schools that have disadvantaged students using a state uniform pupil-weighted formula so that they could stay open longer and provide more services.

6. There should be high quality education for all 3 and 4 year olds.

7. Veteran teacher salaries should be raised to $100,000 and beginning teacher salaries should be set at $45,000. In exchange, teacher’s pension systems should be replaced with 401k plans.

8. Teachers should be employed by the state with a state-wide salary schedule. The goal is that teachers should come from the top one-third of high school graduates not from the bottom one-third as is the case now.

9. States should create new teacher development agencies to recruit, train, and certify teachers.

10. New standards, tests, and curriculums should be created for the 21st century that includes things like creativity, innovation, and ability to work on a team.

11. Students should leave high school after passing new state exams in the 10th grade.

The Bush Administration’s Blueprint for Reauthorizing NCLB: The cup is getting fuller?

In January of 2007, the U. S. Department of Education (ED) released its blueprint for the reauthorization of NCLB. The entire twenty-page document as well as shorter fact sheets can be found on the department’s website.19 In an indication of the effect that multiple-choice testing has on increasing the basic skills nature of curricula, the blueprint boasts of the success of NCLB in raising achievement and closing gaps on the NAEP test, but mostly only for 4th graders: “The long-term Nation's Report Card (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showed elementary school student achievement in reading and math at all-time highs and the achievement gap closing:

* For America's nine-year-olds in reading, more progress was made in five years than in the previous 28 combined.

* America's nine-year-olds posted the best scores in reading (since 1971) and math (since 1973) in the history of the report. America's 13-year-olds earned the highest math scores the test ever recorded.

* Reading and math scores for African American and Hispanic nine-year-olds reached an all-time high.

* Math scores for African American and Hispanic 13-year-olds reached an all-time high.

* Achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American nine-year-olds and between white and Hispanic nine-year-olds are at an all-time low.”

Interestingly and in apparent contradiction, a 2006 Condition of Education report by a politically independent section of ED20 noted that

“*The percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above proficient increased between 1992 and 2005 by 2 percent.”

“*Achievement gaps in reading, from the first assessment in 1992 to 2005, between white and black and white and Hispanic fourth- and eighth-graders have shown little measurable progress.”

Further statements about the ineffectiveness of NCLB in raising achievement and closing achievement gaps can be found in a report issued by The Civil Rights Project in June 2006,21 whose key findings were that

“NCLB did not have a significant impact on improving achievement across the nation and states. Based on the NAEP results, the national average achievement remains flat in reading and grows at the same pace in math after NCLB than before.”

“NCLB has not helped the nation and states significantly narrow the achievement gap. The racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in the NAEP reading and math achievement persists after NCLB.”

“NCLB’s attempt to scale up the alleged success of states that adopted test-driven accountability policy prior to NCLB, so-called first generation accountability states (e. g., Florida, North Carolina, Texas) did not work. . . Moreover, both first and second generation states failed to narrow NAEP reading and math achievement gaps after NCLB.”

In the blueprint, the core ideas of NCLB remain intact and some increased flexibility has been included. As referenced earlier in this paper, however, the blueprint calls for the use of more vouchers to allow public school students to attend private schools. The new Democratic majority in Congress has reacted negatively to this idea.22

Alternatives to NCLB

Although NCLB is fundamentally punitive in nature, some accountability is of course necessary. FairTest, a nonprofit organization, is collaborating with folks across the U. S. to develop new models of accountability. They have come up with the following ten principles23 for such a model:

1. Shared vision and goals

2. Adequate resources used well.

3. Participation and democracy.

4. Prioritizing goals.

5. Multiple forms of evidence.

6. Inclusion.

7. Improvement.

8. Equity.

9. Balance bottom-up and top-down.

10. Interventions.

Of course all of these are explained in detail in the referenced book, which is highly recommended.


As one can see from the above, the problem is with the whole premise of NCLB. Business-style accountability remains a largely unproven method of improving educational outcomes, despite now over twenty years of its pre-eminence if one goes back to the origin of the accountability movement in the 1980’s. Scores on independent measures of student achievement, such as the so-called Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have shown little to no improvement, for example, in closing the achievement gap in this time period.24 More low-income and minority students are dropping out, and more teachers (often the best ones) are leaving the profession.25 Life outcomes cannot be said to have improved either, as the percentage of people living without health insurance has increased, the percentage of people living in poverty has increased, the distribution of wealth has become more concentrated amongst the few, etc.

Despite the record of lack of success in K-12 education under business-style accountability, the reauthorization of NCLB simply calls for more accountability and more parental choice. This heavy focus on the belief in the power of business-style accountability and parental choice to affect change is far too narrow to adequately address the complexities of education and human motivation. It is well known, for example, that school achievement is most powerfully related to family income,26 and the large government study referenced earlier shows that private schools and charter schools don’t do better with students from low-income families.. Further, as stated above very few parents take advantage of the choice option of NCLB, and very few seats are available anyway in the higher-performing schools of large urban districts.27 So the results of choice, the frequency of choice and the availability of choice all point to the ineffectiveness of such a proposition (choice), and yet the administration keeps proposing it. One has to wonder why, which brings one full circle back to the introductory sections. The only reason I can see that the current administration doesn’t focus on the enormous disparities in (a) teacher quality and state and local spending between school districts serving the greatest number of minority kids and those serving the fewest ,28 (b) Title I spending across the states29 and (c) family income is that the administration doesn’t want public schools to succeed. It wants to privatize them.30


1. From a talk given by then Secretary Paige at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. A video of the talk was viewed on local public television by the author of this paper.
2. See
3. From “NSBA Campaign to Restore Federal Funding for American’s Schoolchildren,” see
4. See
5. Report released on the web on
July 14, 2006 at “Private schools are no better than public schools; Federal study finds private schools lose their edge when student characteristics are taken into account,” NSBA’s School Board News, Volume 26, Number 12, August 8, 2006. Further published as “School Sector and Academic Achievement: A Multilevel Analysis of NAEP Mathematics Data,” in American Research Journal, Winter 2006, Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 651-698.
6. “After Katrina, Bush pushes school vouchers,” Christian Century, October 18, 2005.
7. “Limits Of Vouchers Exposed Not All Students Can Switch To Private Schools. What Happens To Those Left Behind?” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2000.
8. For example, according to a study by the California Teacher’s Association, 96 percent of the students in the lowest-performing schools were members of ethnic minorities. In contrast, 71 percent of the students in the top-performing schools were white. From The California Educator, May 2001, Volume Five, Issue 8, p. 7.
9. Many Children Left Behind, How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools, by Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Linda Darling-Hammond, Theodore R. Sizer, George Wood and others. Beacon Press, Boston, 2004. Pages 5 and 12.
10. “Ten Big Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Public Schools.” Center on Education Policy, Washington, D. C., November 2006.
11. California School Boards Association, California Schools, Winter 2006, pp. 36-44.
12. National School Boards Association, Campaign for Co-Sponsors, H. R. 5709, No Child Left Behind Improvements Act of 2006, An Action Plan for Local School Board Members, July 24, 2006, pp. 11-28.
13. Congressional Record, Vol. 152, No. 86, June 28, 2006.
14. “Chickens Come Home to Roost,” CRESST Line, Fall 2005, pages 1, 3, 7, and 8.
15. “AYP Rules Miss Many in Special Ed.; More Students Left Out of Accountability Ratings,” Education Week, published September 21, 2005, for example.
16. “Testing to Inform Learning,” CRESST Line, Fall 2005, pages 4-6.
17. “Federal report proposes changes in supplemental services,” NSBA’s School Board News, Volume 26, Number 21, December 26, 2006, page 3.
18. “Panel proposes overhaul of education system,” NSBA’s School Board News, Volume 26, Number 21,December 26, 2006, page 1.
20. “A Snapshot of the State of U. S. Education,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2006. Full report is available at
21. “Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome Trends,” by Jaekyung Lee. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, June 2006.
22. “Bush pushes voucher proposal over Democrats' objection ,” posted
1/24/07 at
23. Reference number 9 pp. 104-113.
24. See reference number 20, for example.
25. Reference number 9 page 86.

26. See reference number 9 page xix and page 59, for example.
27. See reference number 9 pp. 103-104, for example.
28. “Yes We Can, Telling Truths and Dispelling Myths About Race and Education in America,” The Education Trust, September 2006, page 7.
30. See reference number 9 pages 71, 84-91, for example.


Eric Mar said...

Thanks for posting Scott Phelp's excellent analysis of NCLB. Our school board is hearing a motion/resolution tonight with a similar critique of NCLB.

Anonymous said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

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