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A Prescription for Helping No Child Left Behind

President Bush has reiterated his strong support for the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses attention on issues related to high standards, test-based accountability, and quality in teaching and learning. The act affects schools, educators and students nationwide and has received mixed reviews within the education community. Some believe it has concentrated attention on strengthening students’ academic skills; others are concerned about the act’s standardized curricula and accountability obligations and about what are perceived as undersourced and sometimes unfunded mandates. In this context, schools are highly vested in the effective implementation of NCLB and continue to work to strengthen methods of evaluating their success in producing highly qualified teachers.

As Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings work with school districts, universities, policymakers, parents and community leaders to strengthen NCLB, we at George Washington University who prepare tomorrow’s educators recommend the following strategies for addressing some of the more controversial aspects of the act.

Standards of Learning. NCLB emphasizes high standards of learning, coherent and rigorous curricula, and assessments that measure student achievement, all of which we support. However, we caution against policies that standardize teaching and learning at the expense of creativity and diversity. Schools should align standards, curricula and assessments so that each child’s education stresses mastery of content and critical thinking skills.

High-Stakes Assessments. In an increasing number of states, students must pass tests to advance to the next grade or graduate from high school. The school itself also is subject to consequences for low passing rates. We support the disaggregation of assessment results at the school level so that educators can target academic areas and groups of students that need improvement. We also believe that students with special needs and those for whom English is not their first language should be measured separately.

Disaggregation of Data and Its Impact on Urban School Districts. As stated above, disaggregated data can provide useful information. Yet, using data to transfer students from low-performing to high-performing schools runs the risk of overwhelming those schools that are successfully maximizing limited resources. More importantly, the policy does not address the real problem: How do we transform each school into a successful learning community? We suggest that NCLB’s urban district transfer provision be reassessed to determine the extent to which the provision is feasible and the impact it has had on schools losing students as well as those receiving additional students. Equally important, policymakers should ensure that all schools have the resources needed to use assessment data to strengthen their programs.

Inclusion of Diverse Populations. America’s student population is the most diverse of any country in the world. We must work hard not only to establish high standards but to ensure that schools are prepared to provide all students with opportunities to reach those standards.

Teacher Retention. Additional federal support is needed to fund teacher induction and mentoring strategies that utilize models of differentiated staffing, communities of practice and other methods. Professional development should be data-driven, school-based and specific to the needs of students and staff. Formalized induction programs should last from one to three years and focus on improving confidence, strengthening skills and ultimately reducing turnover rates throughout the profession.

Teacher Preparation and Educational Leadership. The provision that schools employ highly qualified teachers is central to the effectiveness of NCLB. We suggest that the term “highly qualified teacher” be redefined to require that teacher candidates complete a teacher education program rather than merely be enrolled in one. Teacher qualifications should be judged by multiple measures, including teaching practice, in addition to standardized test pass rates. The quality of teacher preparation programs should be measured on such variables as candidate attrition and student performance.

Moreover, school leadership should receive more prominence. In order to transform low-performing schools into successful learning communities, educational administration programs need to produce leaders who are informed participants in the implementation of NCLB and are able to provide the leadership necessary to ensure their school’s success in meeting NCLB and other academic standards.

Parental Accountability. The accountability movement has generally not emphasized parental accountability. Yet, the goals of NCLB, or those of any other academic standards, cannot be realized without making certain that parents understand and fulfill their part of the covenant to realize quality and equality in education for all.

Implications for Schools and Universities. NCLB impacts education at all levels. Strong teacher preparation and human services programs have an enduring effect on the quality of communities, especially on higher education. University presidents should become familiar with NCLB’s influence on higher education. We also encourage Spellings to work with university presidents to support partnerships between schools of education, schools of arts and sciences, and school districts to foster quality education and research, thus ensuring the successful implementation of NCLB.

To date, NCLB has focused primarily on elementary education. Yet, NCLB affects all levels of education, and increased federal involvement in defining the accountability framework for kindergarten through graduate education is here to stay. We must, therefore, work collectively to ensure that America’s children, especially those with the greatest educational needs, do not get left behind.

NCLB contains lofty and challenging requirements that affect all schools, but particularly urban schools. Educators at all levels hold a stake in the future of NCLB and, therefore, should work to ensure that the act is indeed a commitment to access, quality and accountability in education for all children, especially those from low-income and minority families.

Mary Hatwood Futrell is the dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University.