Report: Districts Unprepared for Education Bill

As Congress prepares to reconsider the No Child Left Behind law later this year, two Harvard researchers have published a report saying that schools nationwide are not prepared to make the changes called for by the 2001 legislation.

“The law is asking them to do very different things that they are not equipped to do,” Gail L. Sunderman, a research assistant at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and an author of the report, said in an interview.

The report, “Domesticating a Revolution: No Child Left Behind Reforms and State Administrative Response,” was published in this winter’s Harvard Educational Review just as the law comes up for reauthorization in Congress this year. It identifies budgetary limitations, constraints on human resources, and limitations on state governments’ capacities to intervene in individual schools and districts as some of the problems states face in implementing No Child Left Behind.

The report was authored by Sunderman and Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy and the co-founder and director of the Civil Rights Project.

According to the White House’s Web site, schools that do not comply with the guidelines dictated by the No Child Left Behind law face sanctions from the federal government that include the reallocation of funds to higher-performing schools and the replacement of teachers and administrators with federal employees.

“They don’t have much time,” Sunderman said of schools. “If they don’t make AYP [adequate yearly progress] for two years, the first sanctions set in.”

The report examined the implementation of the legislation in six states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Virginia. States were chosen for the study based on criteria that included location and student demographics.

No Child Left Behind proposed radical changes to the structure of school systems. One of the report’s biggest criticisms is that these changes were mandated in a top-down manner from federal to state governments.

The Sunderman and Orfield report recognized a “striking good faith effort” by local school districts to meet the law’s requirements, but also “a striking lack of resources and knowledge to accomplish the extraordinary goals of NCLB.”

According to the Department of Education’s Web site, those goals are to increase accountability, improve teacher quality, and confirm progress through standardized testing results.

Cathy Tsacoyeanes, a Connecticut middle school vice principal, said that the changes brought on by the law were needed, particularly in inner city schools like her own. But she also said that the law does not take into account a number of factors that influence students’ overall performance.

“Our scores are constantly low and lower than the state average,” she said, citing large populations of special education and economically disadvantaged students among the issues that contributed to depressed testing results in her district.

The report said the sanctions non-compliant districts face “seemed disproportionate and counterproductive.”

This sentiment was shared by Tsacoyeanes. “The lawmakers really need to sit down and talk to the teachers,” she said.

“Everybody has their issues,” Sunderman said. “Some think it will never work.” But she also recognized a separate school of thought, advanced by the law’s advocates, claiming that the legislation is essentially effective, but stands to be improved through amendment.

“Politicians are looking for a well defined way to improve schools,“ said Sunderman. “We are hoping that there will be a good debate on this law.”