Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Results of federal education law mixed

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By NICK MORDOWANEC
Capital News Service

LANSING – The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was supposed to invigorate education and raise academic standards, but eight years later the results are mixed.

NCLB called for new requirements and accountability systems based on annual student progress assessments.

Other goals required states to ensure that teachers are qualified and to make annual progress by increasing proficiency in reading and math, along with narrowing the gap in test score between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

NCLB, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, also sought to get students more involved in schooling.

After eight years of study, a bevy of information has been documented to see whether the 2001 law is actually benefiting students in Michigan and beyond.

Brian Jacob, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and Thomas Dee, an economics professor at Swarthmore College, examined the NCLB’s accountability system and compared some areas of study which had not been formally observed on a national level.

“Their study concluded that math scores among Michigan fourth- and eighth-graders improved dramatically, although reading scores in those grade levels showed little statistical improvement.

There were achievements across the state,” Jacob said. “There have been many positive effects of mass performance, particularly among fourth graders.

“The effects are not similar in terms of reading,” he added.

However, academic standards are not the only essential aim of the NCLB.

Sharif Shakrani, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University and who worked for the NCLB program in Washington, D.C., said the goal of the program is not only to achieve improvement in reading and math, but also to close the learning gap between underachieving and overachieving students.

“Based on national data, there have been significant improvements in math at the elementary and middle school levels, but not in high school,” Shakrani said. “Reading results were about the same, which can be attributed to an increase number of students who are English-language learners in public schools, along with increases in other recreational areas like watching television.”

Bob Harris, professional development consultant at the Michigan Education Association, said the biggest benefit has been to push schools and districts to better serve all students. MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees.

“If you were a district with good standing and had a 95 percent graduation rate with few failing students, it wasn’t good enough,” Harris said.” The NCLB made schools more aware of the need to make sure nobody was being left out and making sure every student was successful, including such subgroups as African-American, Hispanic, Latinos, multi-racial, disabled and economically disadvantaged.

He said, “It forced the achievement issue. Schools had to annually achieve at continually higher rates and looking long-term wasn’t good enough. Schools and districts said ‘we could do better.’”

In terms of closing the gap in Michigan, results have been less than stellar, Shakrani said.
There was a slight increase in math scores, but without the significant improvement in reading found in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Shakrani identified another benefit in Michigan. “The positive effect was recognizing low-performing schools in cities such as Detroit, Flint, Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor and Lansing. Schools in those areas were experiencing consistent academic failures on a yearly basis. Attention is now being given to how such schools are being run, noticing a lack of progress before it was too late.

“Parents became much more aware of how schools were doing and were given more choices of where to send their kids,” he said.

Shakrani said schools have good intentions, but an over-reliance on standardized testing led some to eliminate programs like music and physical education. That denies students the opportunity to excel in other areas and develop a more comprehensive education.

MEA’s Harris said, “A one-test-fits-all mentality is impractical. It is also an unrealistic expectation for every school to achieve 100 percent proficiency. Can you take a child into your school district before exams and get them up to that level?

“Eventually, all schools will fail because it’s hard to reach 100 percent in all areas. It’s all sticks and no carrots,” he said.

NCLB has its drawbacks, but Jacob and Harris said the program shouldn’t be abolished but amended. It should give states more flexibility in aiding the lowest- performing and provide more suitable options, they said.

Shakrani said, “The program must continue to hold schools accountable for performance of their students. It must hold schools accountable for the outcome of percentage of graduates and dropouts, teachers’ contributions and other contributing variables.”

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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