After all, by another name, No Child Left Behind -- the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy -- was simply the 2001 renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a watershed law originated in 1965 by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson -- part of his Great Society agenda. In its day, the act set federal spending records for education, which had been (and today remains) mostly a local and state enterprise. The latest version -- christened No Child Left Behind by the George W. Bush administration -- is the biggest expansion of the federal role since 1965.
The centerpiece of LBJ's school act was Title I, a new source of federal funding intended partially to bridge the local funding gap (which still exists) between rich and poor school districts. No Child passed with broad bi-partisan support and promised a huge increase in Title I funding. It also added an expectation that student performance would improve drastically, to an unprecedented 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, as well as mandates to develop and administer new tests and to collect more data on students than ever before.
Local and state officials of all stripes have complained that the law's prescribed score jumps are unrealistic; that its method of measuring educational progress is inaccurate; that its requirements are unfunded; and that the law unfairly labels schools as "failing."
The Bush administration correctly claims that Title I funding has increased since 2001. Yet that spending has been much less than Congress authorized for 2002-2005: $27 billion short of the authorized $122 billion. For 2005, Bush has requested Congress appropriate $9.4 billion short of the original authorization. Although Congress seldom spends the full amount approved for any legislation, states like Pennsylvania say that's desperately needed to fulfill the law's vast ambitions.
"Typically, the administration in Washington claims they've given a huge amount of money to education, and they have," says Ethan Cancell, special assistant to Pennsylvania's education secretary. "But the question is, have they given a sufficient amount?" Not all of the federal money can go to struggling students: A large chunk must be spent on testing, data management and No Child's other requirements.
Cancell says that, due to a new formula based on the 2000 census, Pennsylvania lost about $7.5 million in Title I funding this year; Pittsburgh alone lost $722,000. "The law is good, but needs improvement," he says. "We need more funding and more flexibility." Bush campaign spokesperson Kevin Madden promises that Pennsylvania will see an increase next year, pointing to an overall Title I funding increase of 27 percent in Pennsylvania since 2001.
Although Pittsburgh school-board member Patrick Dowd has concerns about how No Child Left Behind is applied, he endorses it in principle: "I think everyone agrees with accountability -- the board, superintendent, parents, administrators. No Child Left Behind has brought us to a point where we're holding ourselves more accountable than in the past."
No Child requires, for the first time, that schools separately report the test scores of historically disadvantaged groups of students -- low-income, minorities, new English speakers, and, controversially, special-education students. Achievement gaps, previously obscured by "average" scores, would now be in plain view. It requires nearly every public-school student in the country to test "proficient" on a standardized test by 2014. In many of America's most disadvantaged schools, less than 30 percent of the students are currently testing "proficient."
Schools that fall short of benchmarks on the way to 100 percent proficiency are placed on a public "warning" list after one year. If next year's higher benchmark is missed in just one category -- even though a new group of students is being tested each year -- districts must use up to 20 percent of their federal funding to transport students to a better-scoring school if their parents wish. If the schools miss benchmarks for five consecutive years -- a deadline which for some may come in the fall of 2006 -- drastic measures may be required, such as firing the school staff or a private takeover.
The emphasis on failure and punishment misrepresents schools' efforts, says Dowd. "It's heavily weighted to the negative. Warning lists, School Improvement I, School Improvement II -- it's very easy to get on these lists."
At this point in No Child's implementation, only fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders have been tested, and a school's No Child "success" is based on comparing one year's fifth graders to the next year's, not in measuring the progress of the same individuals from year to year.
By these standards, Pittsburgh's Spring Hill Elementary School might seem to have done a worse job of educating students this year than last. Spring Hill enjoys a good reputation in the city and echoes district-wide demographics. Two years ago, Principal Thomas Nichols says, school staff recognized that their fourth grade didn't contain as many strong students as the fifth grade. In anticipation of these fourth graders moving up and getting tested, the staff identified their deficiencies and went to work aggressively plugging the holes. Despite improvements, they weren't able bring these students to the level of the previous class. While their scores were good enough to keep Spring Hill off the lists of shame, they seemed to imply that school staff did less for these students, despite teachers' extra efforts.
"I would start to think differently about how we measure performance," says Pittsburgh board member Dowd, who would prefer to judge schools by the progress of individuals. "If everyone in a given class [of tested fifth-graders] starts three grade levels behind, but in a year they move up to the fourth-grade level, that's a tremendous amount of learning. Someone has done their job."
Yet in such a scenario that school would still fail to meet the No Child standard. "The 'Schools That Improved List' doesn't exist," says Dowd, "so [No Child] is designed to generate negative feelings about the most important institution in America.
"I don't think the Bush administration sees public education as serving a vital role," he continues. "They see it as a drain on society, and I think they're trying to prove it with this law."