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At the time of its enactment in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has elicited mixed responses from different quarters of American political idelogies. Some were hopeful that it would prove to be a reformist movement whose effects would be benign to all children, while others were skeptical of its merits and suspicious of the real intentions behind it. Following up on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the NCLB is an effort on part of the federal government to improve opportunities for poor and backward children. (Murnane, 2007) The Bush Administration that pushed for its enactment during the very first year of its term, touted it as an "attempt to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education" (Sanders, 2008). But nearly nine years since its implementation, educationists and journalists are unsure if the stated objectives have been met. Reviewing the scholarly literature pertaining to the subject, it seems that an opposite effect had been achieved, whereby
"the consequences of the statute may instead deny access to adequate education for a large portion of the population. Its implementation, primarily through its system of rewards and punishments, may actually inhibit educational opportunities for the very population it was designed to serve - low-income students. If its provisions are enforced, the statute could practically force low-income students to remain in poor- performing public schools while failing to address their real educational needs, thus decreasing the chances of them ever attaining academic proficiency". (Sanders, 2008)
One criticism of the NCLB Act is that it focuses too much on output of schools rather than the input. Under the NCLB, 'adequacy' has become the buzzword as against the goal of 'equality' of education to all ethnic groups. Especially disadvantaged are students from minority communities such as African Americans, who tend to come from low socio-economic backgrounds. By not giving special attention to low-income students, the Act has undermined their opportunities. For example, in urban school districts, "the structure of the statute now provides block grants to Title I schools rather than direct aid to low-income students. The funds are dispersed to assist all the students at the school; therefore, the low-income students get a smaller percentage of the grant to themselves. In fact, some programs may not be directed to low-income students at all". (Sanders, 2008) Added to this is the problem of finding the right teaching staff in urban school districts:
"Teachers play a critical role in schooling, particularly in inner-city school districts where children often have less support at home. But central-city districts often have difficulty finding qualified teachers. According to federal statistics in the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 34.7 percent of central city schools had difficulty hiring a math teacher, compared with only 25.1 percent of suburban schools." (Jacob, 2007)
In addition to this, students in 4th and 8th grades are expected to pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. The collective performance of all its students are held as a measure of a school's success. A failure to improve upon scores as per the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards for two years in a row requires the administrators must inform parents that they are allowed to transfer their children to a better performing school within the urban district. Further, "if a school fails to make AYP for a third year, the school must institute supplemental educational activities for its students. After the fourth and fifth year of failing to make AYP, a school is subject to a restructuring that could include replacing staff, instituting new curriculum, regulating the facility directly through the state, and even closing the school and reopening it as a charter school." (Sanders, 2008) While these provisions under the NCLB were intended to provide incentives for efficient and effective school administrations, their negative consequence is that they "disproportionately and adversely affect low-income students and low-income schools", including African American students (Sanders, 2008). Commentators also point out that the government funding under Title I is not adequate to cover the expenses of all of the statute's requirements. Even the funding allocated for poverty-based programs in urban public schools gets diverted to cover administration of standardized tests which form the heart of the NCLB.
Even before implementation of NCLB, staffing urban schools with qualified teachers has been an issue. But since 2001, the mismatch between supply and demand has exacerbated, as most qualified and experienced teachers want to work for schools with a good performance record. It is invariably the case that high-performance schools have disproportionately low number of students from racial/ethnic minorities and low socio-economic backgrounds. In the 9 years of NCLB's implementation, the standard of urban school teachers have decreased when compared to their suburban counterparts. Urban public schools are disadvantaged by other factors: "Demand also has a role in urban teacher shortages. Administrators in urban schools may not recognize or value high-quality teachers. Human resource departments restrict district officials from making job offers until late in the hiring season, after many candidates have accepted positions elsewhere". (Jacob, 2007) In this context, it becomes important to redesign standards for granting teacher tenure and improving overall hiring practices.
It is a well documented fact that African American students in particular generally fare below par in maths and science subjects. Similarly, those students from low-income families generally perform poorly in Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). As per the 2004 Census Bureau, close to 14 million children below age 18 lived in conditions of poverty, which translates to 18 percent child poverty rate across the country. And the phenomenon of globalisation has put unreasonable pressure on students and teachers so that it has become imperative for the former to acquire skills that make them competitive in the global marketplace. During the three decades after the Second World War, it was possible for an American citizen to earn a reasonable income with just a high-school certificate. But in today's economic environment, there is no guarantee of finding a job even with a college degree. The average hourly wages of Americans with different educational levels shows how brutal this reality is. For example, "in 1979 graduates of a four-year college earned 46 percent more than high school graduates earned on average. By 2005 that gap had widened to 74 percent. During that same period the average inflation-adjusted earnings of high school dropouts fell 16 percent". (Murnane, 2007) Today, "even manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs require knowledge of algebra, as well as sophisticated reading comprehension and problem-solving skills. In this new environment, schools are being asked to provide all students an education once enjoyed by only a select few". (Jacob, 2007) Both public school teachers and their students (in both urban and rural districts) are finding it difficult to cope with this heightened pressure. The NCLB Act has only exacerbated this pressure and does nothing to alleviate it.
Another issue with NCLB is with regard to funding. Recently, the Department of Education initiated the Teacher Incentive Fund with a budget of $100 million which would be disbursed to teachers on a pay-for-performance criterion. While many city districts successfully implemented this program there were disparities in the distribution between schools that predominantly tutored white children when compared to schools that had a higher percentage of minorities. (Sanders, 2008)
Right from the date of enactment of NCLB in 2001, school teachers across the country have had reservations about its consequences. An area that concerned most of them is the effect NCLB would have in raising education standards of disadvantaged children and its ability to ensure that such students have a qualified and experienced teacher to take charge. Based on opinion polls and surveys conducted on public school teachers in cities across the country, we can gauge a sense of disappointment in the way NCLB had worked thus far. For example, many teachers feel that the kind of focus given to literacy and math skills is not extended to other subjects. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the way NCLB has derailed reform initiatives that were showing positive outcomes in the years prior to 2001. Teachers also identified funding and accountability measures as "unfair and inaccurate ways of determining student and school performance." (McElroy, 2005). The way in which Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of schools is measured has also not gone down well with teachers. They contend that
"the central provision of the law, the adequate yearly progress (AYP) measure, doesn't necessarily give credit for progress. Many teachers report feeling that, on the basis of AYP, their schools have been wrongly identified as "failing." Many schools that have made commendable progress have been targeted for NCLB's escalating sanctions because some or most of their students started further behind and did not reach the law's arbitrary benchmark. Ineffective schools should be identified, but right now there is reason to believe that many so-called failing schools are being identified for statistical rather than educational reasons." (McElroy, 2005)
School teachers in both rural and urban America feel that the law will actually reduce student achievement in the case of minorities. This is so because under the provision of the NCLB, a regular school that does not satisfy AYP requirements is converted to a charter school. The lesser qualification standards for teachers in charter schools means that the students (who are predominantly from low socio-economic backgrounds) also receive a sub-standard education. These charter schools apply the same low standards for hiring Supplemental Service Providers (SSPs). African American and Hispanic children are the most affected by these changes to the law, as they seldom get the services of 'highly qualified' teachers. Under the NCLB, most of the teachers who fit the 'highly qualified' tag will gravitate toward 'easiest to educate' children (usually middle class white children), while those in dire need of quality education get left behind.
Statistics pertaining to school staffing under the NCLB regime indicates the merits and deficiencies of this law. But in the case of Ohio, results are positive, as the following passage shows:
"Initial state reports on the highly qualified teacher mandate indicated wide variation, ranging from as low as 16% in Alaska and 25% in Puerto Rico to over 98% in Idaho and Wisconsin. Twenty states reported that over 90% of classrooms were taught by highly qualified teachers, but 4 states reported that less than half of classrooms met this NCLB mandate. For the 2002-03 school year, Ohio reported that 82% of its classes were taught by highly qualified teachers in all schools, and 78% in high- poverty schools.12 Scholars have noted that some of this state-by-state variation could be explained by inaccurate or incomplete data collection by states." (Safier, 2007)
We can learn several things from the above set of statistics. Firstly, in Ohio (across levels), the urban status seems to be correlated to lower percentages of highly qualified teachers. Next, at the level of individual schools in Ohio, student performance is inversely correlated to teacher qualification. More importantly, "increasing instructional expenditures is correlated with increasing percentages of highly qualified teachers; increasing teacher salaries and staff support expenditures are not correlated with increasing percentages of highly qualified teachers" (Safier, 2007). This is important because in Ohio, public schools have incremented their budgets for staff support by twenty percentage since the implementation of NCLB, while during the same period, instructional expenses have been capped at a fixed level. (Safier, 2007) But in order to understand the full implications of NCLB on urban school districts in Ohio, researchers will have to make a more comprehensive enquiry.
Seen from a historical perspective, ever since the introduction of Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) in 1965, there have no been radical upheavals of this Act, until the enactment of NCLB in 2001. Under the NCLB, government's role in the country's public school system was redefined to include "(1) stronger accountability for results, (2) increased flexibility and local control, (3) expanded options for parents, and (4) emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven effective". (Seaton, et. Al, 2007) But as critics point out now, such guiding principles are too vague and too general to be of value in catering to the needs of all sections of the student community. For example, the emphasis on annual exam outcomes has put pressure on teachers and administrators to encourage students to cram and regurgitate content in the exams. As a result, creative thinking and reflective thinking have been forsaken within the classroom atmosphere. While the emphasis on test results for schools is not unimportant, its value should be considered in the backdrop of longitudinal statistical data pertaining to urban public schools. For instance, the data suggests that the average scores for high-schoolers have not improved since the 1970s despite taxpayers spending close to 130 billion dollars on public education in this period. Teachers in urban public schools complain that conducting so many tests and exams during the academic year takes a toll on them as well as students leading some to mental anxiety and burnout. Some assert that while added focus on tests may help achieve objectives set out in the syllabus, such "content driven accountability standards leave little room for teachers to cultivate interpersonal skills that may actually help students learn". (Seaton, et. Al, 2007)
Even the drafters of NCLB identify some urban schools as 'hard-to-staff'. And these schools have a high proportion of African American pupils in them, making a case for NCLB's inadequacy in correcting this aspect of American public education. Indeed, these so-called 'hard-to-staff' schools happen to be the least funded and poorly resourced to fulfil NCLB mandates. Despite proactive measures from administrators in these schools, their ranking and performance continues to lag behind. Already, fourteen states offer incentives for teachers to fill up vacancies in schools with high-poverty pupils. Bigger states among them, which can avail of greater resources, such as Florida, Texas and California offer bonuses to teachers who have passed the National Board examination. And a few other urban school districts have started new programs that would specially address the needs of students from low-income households: "For example, Miami-Dade County has designated its thirty-nine lowest-performing schools as a School Improvement Zone. It is offering teachers a 20 percent pay premium to take a job in one of these schools, working a longer school day and school year."(Murnane, 2007)
All of this suggests that the NCLB Act, as it functions today is inadequate in fully addressing the needs of all schools and its pupils. In this context, the federal government could take a few steps to improve the situation, especially for low-income and minority students. According to Richard Murnane, the Congress should amend accountability standards so that the goals set for schools are reasonable. The emphasis should be laid on skills attained by students rather then scores gotten in tests. Voluntary school choice provisions can be strengthened so that students can move from inefficient schools to the ones functioning well in the same district. Congress can also think of giving more autonomy for urban school districts and also allocate more funds toward low socio-economic students. Since most African American and other racial/ethnic minority students belong to this category, "Congress should use competitive matching grants to build the capacity of schools to educate low-income children and the capacity of state departments of education to boost the performance of failing schools and districts. The grants would help develop effective programs to improve teaching and to serve students who do not fare well in conventional high school programs." (Murnane, 2007)
In conclusion, it is appropriate to say that the NCLB Act is by no means successful. There are discrepancies between the official rhetoric relating to this Act and ground realities as witnessed by disadvantaged students and their parents. Those schools that provide much needed education for African Americans, Hispanics and other minority students tend to be the ones penalized for not meeting AYP standards. This statute has the adverse effect of compelling many poor children to drop out of school without adequate skills to compete in the global workplace. For example,
"many of these children are likely to leave school before earning a high school diploma. Even if they graduate, many leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living. Equal access to a good education has become especially crucial over the past twenty-five years, as a rapidly changing economy has made skills and education ever more important determinants of labor market outcomes." (Murnane, 2007)
Such being the reality of American public school system (both urban and rural), it is imperative that the Congress and the President step up the effectiveness of NCLB. As we gather from several scholarly sources, the conditions of our urban public schools and the disparities between them have only become steep in the nine years since NCLB came into effect. While urban school districts in some states, including Ohio, have done well the last few years, most others have poor results to show. Teachers have their own complaints about the prevailing system and are demanding change. African American students in particular are set to suffer, if nothing is done about the rules governing urban school staffing, teacher qualifications, funding mechanisms and performance criteria for schools.
Jacob, B. A. (2007). The Challenges of Staffing Urban Schools with Effective Teachers. The Future of Children, 17(1), 129+.
McElroy, E. J. (2005, May/June). Nclb's Unintended Consequences. American Teacher, 89, 2.
Murnane, R. J. (2007). Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty. The Future of Children, 17(2), 161+.
Safier, K. L. (2007). Improving Teacher Quality in Ohio: the Limitations of the Highly Qualified Teacher Provision of the No Child Left behind Act of 2001. Journal of Law and Education, 36(1), 65+.
Sanders, A. (2008). Left Behind: Low-income Students under the No Child Left behind Act . Journal of Law and Education, 37(4), 589+.
Seaton, G., Dell'Angelo, T., Spencer, M. B., & Youngblood, J. (2007). Moving beyond the Dichotomy: Meeting the Needs of Urban Students through Contextually-Relevant Education Practices. Teacher Education Quarterly, 34(2), 163.
Stringfield, S. (2007). Improvements in Academic Achievement among African American Students over Time: National Data and an Urban Case Study. The Journal of Negro Education, 76(3), 306+.