The little red schoolhouse in front of the U.S. Department of Education — with a banner reading "No Child Left Behind" — was dismantled this summer. In its place: nothing, for now.
That faux-rustic symbol of George W. Bush's high-profile education-reform policy is gone, but the program and its requirements remain, at least until President Barack Obama's administration turns its focus to education. Administrators, educators and parents are waiting to see what happens next.
No Child Left Behind, enacted with bipartisan support in January 2002, was a cornerstone of Bush domestic policy, but in recent years it has been derided by parents and educators alike for its strict guidelines defining a successful school.
"It's an unrealistic goal that was honorable in its intent," says Patrick Russo, superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools. "It had righteous intentions to help close the achievement gap, but one of the outcomes was that schools were identified as failing even though they could have had a significant majority of students [who were] highly proficient and be well-performing, improving schools."
Under NCLB, states must demonstrate progress from year to year on standardized tests and close achievement gaps. The benchmarks rise each year, and by 2014, every student — including those in English as a Second Language classes and those diagnosed as learning-disabled — must attain proficiency on the tests (the Standards of Learning in Virginia). That's 100 percent, a figure that many educators say is impossible to reach.
"It seems a little aggressive," says Yvonne Brandon, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.
"It's similar to a track-and-field event," says Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, which has opposed many aspects of NCLB. "The pole vaulters all make the first few jumps easily. They raise the bar, and most make it over with a little extra oomph. But at some point, the bar is set so high that it's physically impossible. That's what No Child Left Behind has done to America's schools. By 2014, every school in the country will be labeled as failing."
That failing label isn't always accurate, says Jo Lynne DeMary, a former state superintendent of instruction and now director of the Center for School Improvement at Virginia Commonwealth University. She says she often has to explain that just because a school is classified as needing improvement, it isn't necessarily a bad or failing school.
The complex web of NCLB regulations leaves even some seasoned educators baffled. And parents and students, who often just hear about Standards of Learning tests, don't always realize there are other nuances and regulations, including myriad sub-groups included in the system that measures Adequate Yearly Progress.
"There are 29 ways you can not make AYP," notes DeMary.
"I had no sense of what the administration had to deal with," says Adria Graham Scott, a mother of four who won a seat on the Richmond School Board last fall.
Scott believes in accountability, but adds, "There is great frustration with this skewed, test-based system. Teachers feel impeded in the classroom. They have so much potential and aren't able to demonstrate it. With four kids, one thing I've learned is that they all learn differently, and you can't just hand them a worksheet and have a test on it at the end of the week."
Students, she says, sense the pressure schools feel to pass the standardized tests.
And schools are under pressure to perform, lest they be subject to sanctions. Petersburg Public Schools, for example, which has not made AYP in years, was investigated by the state Department of Education this summer after reports alleging a group of students was illegally excluded from taking state tests, perhaps resulting in inaccurate data reports. Findings will be presented to the state Board of Education Committee on School and Division Accountability on Sept. 16, and the board may take action at its Sept. 17 meeting. Superintendent James M. Victory declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sanctions, which affect Title I schools, can include supplemental education services, school choice, restructuring and, in some states, school closure (though in Virginia this is not an option, says Charles Pyle, spokesman for the state DoE).
A big part of the problem, school administrators say, is that they aren't receiving the support they need when they aren't successful by NCLB definitions. "Schools shouldn't be punished when there is steady growth," says Brandon, who would like to see schools have a chance to improve before students are offered school choice. The Richmond school system did not make AYP in 2008-2009, although some individual schools did.
"We've never received the resources to support No Child Left Behind mandates," says Rick Richardson, superintendent of New Kent County schools, which again this year did not make AYP as a division, although only one of its four schools didn't meet the national benchmarks. "I am hopeful that some reason is going to be injected into this in the near future. They can't continue to shift the cost and burden to state and local taxpayers."
For now, school districts are saddled with the Bush administration's NCLB rules. Richardson noted that if new legislation isn't in place by midwinter — doubtful, with the Obama team focused on health care and the economy — districts will have to plan for the 2010-2011 school year based on the current requirements, pushing change to 2011-2012 or even later.
However, the Obama administration has given a few clues about where it plans to take education reform, DeMary says. President Obama has supported higher teacher pay and charter schools (a controversial idea in Richmond, which will open a new charter elementary next year, despite the feelings of many central office administrators that the money and effort could better be put into existing schools).
There has been an emphasis by federal administrators on the quality of data, which is especially important in linking student and teacher performances.
"And what I hear [Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan saying is that we're going to give states more flexibility," says DeMary. But flexibility doesn't mean lack of accountability in the schools.
And that, adds De Mary, is one thing NCLB has done right. "A piece of it empowers parents. They can look up the data on their child's school and see exactly how their child fits into the picture at that particular school. Because that's really what every parent wants to know: ‘Is my child going to be OK?' "