Friday, May 27, 2005

The New York Times has a story about the efforts that schools across the nation have been making to reduce the gap between white and minority students since the passage of No Child Left Behind.
"People all over the country are suddenly scrambling around trying to find ways to close this gap," said Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who for more than a decade has been researching school practices that could help improve minority achievement. He said he recently has received many requests for advice. "Superintendents are calling and saying, 'Can you help us?' "

No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring all students to grade level over the next decade. The law has aroused a backlash from teachers' unions and state lawmakers, who call some of its provisions unreasonable, like one that punishes schools where test scores of disabled students remain lower than other students'. But even critics acknowledge that the requirement that schools release scores categorized by students' race and ethnic group has obliged educators to work harder to narrow the achievement gap.

"I've been very critical of N.C.L.B. on other grounds," said Robert L. Linn, a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. But he called the law's insistence that test scores be made public by race and ethnic group "one of the things that's been good."
The new stress on raising minority achievement is a direct result on the NCLB requirments on accountability for raising all student groups' performance. Just as advertised.

This has been my own experience. North Carolina was ahead of the nation on accountability requirements. In the 90s NC passed requirements that tied teacher bonuses to student achievement on End of Grade tests in reading and math. There is a complicated formula that measures how students did in a previous year and then measures their improvement. Schools can achieve the bonuses for all their teachers if the students improve by a certain amount. Before these requirements were put in, we'd have faculty meetings that I distinctly remember where we would sit around and brainstorm all sorts of ideas for improving test scores and helping kids with their basic skills. We'd produce a long list, but, as far as I could tell, little of that was ever implemented. We'd talk about all teachers including reading and writing in their curriculum but it was left up to us to carry this out. So, teachers would come up with something that they were already doing and then claim that that was related to reading and writing skills. So, basically, we didn't change anything we actually did. We just changed how we labeled it. Well, if you don't change anything, you're not going to see much improvement.

But after the new law was passed tying bonuses to improvement, things really changed. Suddenly, we implemented some real changes. I was teaching in a magnet school where middle school students could take three electives a quarter. We had talked for years about requiring kids with low reading and writing skills to take targeted electives. Now, finally, this was put into place. The principal moved some money around to hire a couple of teachers whose sole job was to work with those students. We tried new computer-teaching programs that targeted specific weaknesses in reading. We began new math electives to reteach basic skills. An afterschool tutoring program and even some Saturday classes began. And, guess what, our school, which had a mix of academically gifted students and neighborhood kids who had low skills, started to see some nice improvement in the basic reading and math skills of those lower-achieving students. What was so noticeable to me was the difference in the administration's actions from the period of time when the state was just setting goals for improvement with no teeth behind those requirements, and afterwards when a carrot-and-stick approach was implemented. We wanted those bonuses for showing substantial improvement. And the stick was the threat that schools that didn't show improvement would have to have state officials come in and oversee every aspect of our school if we didn't improve.

So, that is why I supported No Child Left Behind. I abhor the idea of the national government getting involved in local issues like education. However, now that NCLB has been implemented, schools across the nation are discovering the inspiration that the carrot-and-stick approach to accountability can have to force administrators to focus on raising the achievement levels of those students who previously were getting left behind.