A failing Grade For No Child Left Behind

School systems have been scrambling to produce results ever since 2001, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB, designed to provide more public education funding to help disadvantaged children with reading, math, and other basic skills, was supposed to be one of President George W. Bush’s key domestic programs. So where does progress stand as the Bush presidency wraps up its first term?

NCLB is bringing positive results in some cases, observes former East St. Louis, Illinois, interim school superintendent Katie Harper Wright. “In some of the schools where there is really strong parent involvement, it works better,” says Wright, a Republican National Committee member. “In schools where there is no involvement, the scores lag, and it appears that the education lags.”

Accountability is the key word for this Bush administration marquee program. From third grade through eighth grade, children face annual standardized tests, generating data for Department of Education scrutiny. Failing schools invoke the penalty of their district having to pay for students to transfer to a passing school. But the emphasis on standardized testing led to educators in some school districts, such as Houston, “pushing out” low-performing students, artificially boosting test scores, and creating a dropout problem.

Some critics argue that graduation rates and not just test scores are crucial to evaluating educational success. “Graduation-rate accountability, as it’s been implemented so far, is much weaker than test-based accountability,” says Christopher B. Swanson, a research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Large disparities exist between ethnic groups, as Swanson’s recent study Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t reveals. While 77% of Asians and 75% of whites get their diplomas, only 53% of Hispanics and 50% of African Americans complete high school.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) is the author of the Student Bill of Rights (HR236), legislation that would work as a companion to NCLB. Fattah says his bill would require states to identify school-by-school disparities in class size and access to qualified teachers, textbooks, libraries, and technology. Based on disparity studies in several states, approximately $100 billion is needed to equalize educational opportunities nationwide, estimates Fattah, who notes that $177 billion had been spent on the Iraq war as of May.

Many have pointed out that school system structures are resistant to change and adding more money alone will not necessarily lead to a better school system. “If you have little in the way of restructuring how things are done and who is in place, you may not get the results that you’re looking for,” says Margaret Simms, senior vice president for programs at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and member of the BE Board of Economists.

Tutoring from a state-approved provider is one option for parents whose children attend schools needing improvement. One such supplemental educational services company is Platform Learning, which tutored 10,000 children in six Northeastern cities in 2003-04. “Our biggest challenge is actually changing the culture, because we’re asking kids to be involved in an intensive, academically enriching program,” says the firm’s chairman and