NCLB Sows Confusion, Anger, Resistance

K-12 Testing

While the U.S. Department of Education has approved initial No Child Left Behind implementation plans from all 50 states, many aspects of the states’ plans remain preliminary and in contention. Meanwhile, resistance among parents, teachers, school officials and state legislators continues to build as the potential negative consequences of NCLB come into focus.


Newspaper reports from around the country depict confusion, frustration and mounting anger among local school officials attempting to come to grips with NCLB’s many mandates. Superintendent John Hetlinger of the Gardner-Edgerton district in Kansas City spoke for many when he complained that his district will be declared low-performing despite improving state test scores overall. “I don’t understand it at all,” he said. “Kansas has an excellent assessment program. I don’t think we need to have the federal government tell us how we should run our schools.”


Kentucky’s plan for NCLB compliance remains incomplete because of many differences between state and federal officials. The state has met only eight of the 31 federal criteria for completing its plan, according to a July report in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Kentucky has an excellent system of assessment accountability,” said Helen Mountjoy, the chairwoman of the Kentucky Board of Education. “It’s very disturbing that we are having to look at significant changes which may not be ones that we would choose.”
Even Republican politicians who are close to President Bush have been outspoken, including Montana Gov. Judy Martz, who said the law is doomed in her state without more money and flexibility.


In late May, Maine legislators passed a resolution calling on President Bush to exempt the state from NCLB or pay the costs. The resolution’s supporters said the NCLB is a one-size-fits-all, unfunded mandate that threatens to undermine the state’s own high educational standards. The waiver was denied.


In Nevada, legislators voted down a legislative package meant to bring the state into compliance with NCLB. Some lawmakers expressed concerns that the costs of compliance — $12.7 million over two years — would not be met by federal funding. Nevada already has many testing and accountability requirements, but because many of them differ from NCLB rules, the new measure was seen as needed for NCLB compliance.


The battle in Illinois was over the definition of “adequate yearly progress.” Illinois had proposed a plan calling for slow test score improvements in the first few years and then larger jumps starting in 2007-08, giving the state time to implement new programs. Although Illinois is just one of many states aiming for a slow start and fast finish in the race toward 100% proficiency, federal education officials objected to this specific progress plan, saying it would put off improvements until too close to the 2014 deadline. Meanwhile, the Alabama Board of Education responded to pressure from the Alabama Education Association and voted to defy NCLB by declining to notify parents if their child is assigned a teacher not rated highly qualified. NCLB requires that all teachers be “highly qualified,” using a definition that makes it nearly impossible for many schools to meet the mandate. State Superintendent Ed Richardson at first argued against the move, but then said it would allow him time to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Education in hopes of either getting the federal government to waive the requirement or find another solution.


Meanwhile, as states begin to release lists of schools “in need of improvement,” the size of these lists is, as predicted, growing. A Michigan State University report released in July provided an important reality check on exactly which schools and communities the federal government will dub “failing” under NCLB. According to the report, by the university’s Education Policy Center, nearly all of Michigan’s troubled schools are in high-poverty urban areas and serve low-income, minority children. The report found that only seven out of the 216 troubled schools are in suburban and rural areas. David Plank, director of the center, said the percentage of failing schools in urban areas — 97 percent in this case — is more dramatic than expected.


Replicating this study in other states would likely produce similar results. The question more and more people are beginning to ask is, what does NCLB do to address these persistent problems other than punish kids, teachers, schools and communities for their economic status?


Rather than provide a substantive answer to this question, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has launched a major public relations campaign to counter NCLB “negativism.” The DOE allocated $500,000 to assemble a team to run the No Child Left Behind Communications and Outreach operation. The group, headed by a former Bush campaign operative, will supplement existing DOE communications work. (See March 2003 Examiner for more detailed stories of problems and resistance, now on the web at