Time for PPS to Take a Stand on NCLB

10:00 pm

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson issued an extremely sharp criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday.

It’s time for the Portland Public Schools board and senior administrators to do the same thing.

Bergeson wants to replace AYP, reduce state testing to only 3 grades, and focus more on improvement — all good steps. She would also stop funding after-school tutoring under NCLB (called “supplemental educational services”) and transfers out of Title I dollars and equalize the per-student funding sent to each state (which now varies widely with, in general, poorer states getting less).

Monty Neill, Deputy Director for FairTest, offered this analysis:

The steps she proposes — mostly consistent with the Joint Statement on NCLB — would greatly reduce the damage while opening up space for real improvement. Regretfully, she fails to call for development of better assessment (she’s been a staunch defender of the state’s WASL test, including its graduation requirements) though she talks about “screening and diagnostic testing” (not sure what that really means). Her improvement proposals are pretty thin in many ways (see Forum on Educational Accountability documents for far better, stronger ideas). And her suggestions for English Language Learners and students with disabilities may raise concerns and are too slim to be sure what she means – lots of details to figure out there.

See this 3-page memo (32KB PDF) from Bergeson for more details.

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: No Child Left Behind, Reform, Standardized Testing

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21 Responses

  1. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I just found another district that has decided to take bold leadership on the issue of NCLB.
    On August 26th, the Central Bucks School District in suburban Philadelphia debated whether or not to completely withdraw from NCLB’s testing requirements. You can see the full story here.

    “I think what matters here is what we’re doing to kids and the time we’re taking away from what I would call valid instruction in order to comply with all of this,” said President Geryl McMullin. “It’s absurd and if we’re truly looking at what we can do best for kids we would not be doing [state assessments] the way we’re being dictated to.”

    If the district decides to free itself from the chains of NCLB, it will lose about 4 million dollars, or about 1.5 percent of their annual budget.

    The district will implement their own system of assessments and accountability requirements.

    Why can’t PPS do the same?

  2. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    One quote from the WA Superintendent of Public Instruction I should have emphasized in my original post:

    “As the law has been implemented over time, its unintended consequences are increasingly
    undermining its stated purpose. It is especially damaging to the morale and forward progress of
    talented, hard-working educators in schools with large numbers of low-income students, English
    language learners, and categories of students with disabilities in special education programs. Congress must make significant changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and
    must do so in 2009.”

  3. Comment from Ruth Adkins:

    It’s great that the Washington state supt came out against NCLB, and I hope Susan Castillo does the same. I think there is general consensus around the country that the law needs significant reform in 2009.

    Here at the local level, PPS board member Bobbie Regan recently helped lead a statewide delegation of school board members to Washington, DC to lobby our congressional delegation to reform the law. Right now, with Bush a lame duck and likely Democratic gains in the Nov. election, we are in a waiting period before real reform can take place at the federal level. In my opinion (and obviously I am not alone in this!), electing Barack Obama is the one most important step we need to focus on right now in terms of getting a national shift away from a focus on high-stakes standardized testing toward truly supporting quality public education from early childhood through college. I recently sat in on a conference call with Oregon educational leaders where Obama’s education policy staff person walked us through an overview of his very detailed and, in my opinion, excellent plans. (check it out at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/education/) McCain’s approach amounts to vouchers and more of the same anti-public education, anti-child Bush policies.

  4. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    It’s great to hear Bobbie helped organize this lobbying effort in D.C. I also appreciate her general efforts in Salem, and the board’s resolution re. the English-only ballot measure.

    Perhaps the board could pass a resolution calling for the kinds of NCLB reforms Bobbie and others are already lobbying for, just to formalize the district’s position. It would certainly clarify things for district administrators, who seem tongue-tied when discussing the issue.

  5. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Ruth – I’d echo what Steve R. is asking for. If you, Bobbie, and the other board members are critical of NCLB, why not make a public resolution that says so?

  6. Comment from Terry:

    I’m with Peter and Steve, Ruth. The board needs to speak out on NCLB.

    Since you’re the only board member who signed the petition urging Congress not to reauthorize NCLB, Ruth, I think you’re just the one to introduce a resolution publicly proclaiming the board’s dissatisfaction with the law.

  7. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I suspect that many of the powers that be in public education will look back at this period of NCLB and will wring their hands, wondering why they didn’t act sooner and more forcefully.

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Ruth, a resolution sounds like a good idea to me too. So does the steps I outlined in my answers at the forum. At the very least they could sort out what steps the district is taking to comply with NCLB and anayze them to see if they are helping or hindering childrens’ education. We have been just sheep when it comes to how we’ve responded to this law. It has become the way we judge our schools, yet we have never stood back and said, “Wait a minute, is our response helping or hindering children who can’t read well, children who don’t perform well in school in general, children who are dropping out like flies, children who see little of interest or importance to school, and a lot of other categories.” We just blindly go along trying as hard as we can to get our test scores up.

    And when they go up we pat ourselves on the back and really think we have improved kids’ education. But it is not necessarily so.

    Do we need these tests to get us hyped up about making sure all our students can read well, can do math well, can write well, and understand the importance of a decent education? If that is the case then we truly have failed a good number of the children of our community.

  9. Comment from anon:

    It’s funny to see a PPS board member criticizing Republican policies as anti-public education and anti-child. That is exactly what PPS policies are to schools and kids in Portland’s lower income neighborhoods. You are deluding yourself if you think the PPS transfer policy is less harmful to public education in lower income neighborhoods than vouchers would be. Actually the PPS transfer policy probably results in a lot more divestment from our lower income public schools than vouchers would, because of the large percentage of families that take advantage of the transfer policy.

    And stop blaming NCLB for divestment from our lower income public schools. All but one PPS elementary school meet NCLB standards and are NOT required to allow transfers by NCLB.

    As a board member, you can allow divestment from low income schools or you can speak out to change it. You can support PPS policies that segregate by race and class or you can advocate to end those policies. You can condone having a 2-tier school system or you can give voice to the children and families who are harmed by it.

    It is the responsibility of YOU and the other PPS school board members to change our local education policies, not Barack Obama’s. Get to work and stop wasting our time and yours explaining why you can’t do it. We elected YOU, now do your job!

  10. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Hey gang, quick note, just for a little perspective. I could understand why Ruth might not want to post here anymore if we all just pile on when she does. (I feel like I started it this time around, so I’m not pointing any fingers that aren’t pointing right back at me.)

    I appreciate Ruth’s willingness to engage in the public debate (unlike most of her colleagues), even if we don’t necessarily agree on exactly what equity is, how we need to get there, or how quickly we need to move.

    I totally get the frustration. But let’s just try to keep things focused on policy, not the policy makers. Unless we’ve completely given up, I think it’s best to stay engaged.


  11. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Steve, thank you. I agree with you as usual. You will note in all my posts I try to stay impersonal, but, at the same time, it is the policy makers who make the policy. School board members ask to be school board members. I thought Anon had some good points. And I thought I did too :).

  12. Comment from Ruth Adkins:

    Anon, I was talking specifically about how best to reform NCLB going forward – nowhere did I claim, nor do I believe, that NCLB is the only issue or problem in our district or that electing Barack will fix everything!

    Thanks for the suggestions on doing a resolution – again, the timing is such that changes to the law are coming soon, so a statement against the status quo is to some extent, moot until Nov. At that point we’ll know what is coming (either reform, or things getting worse) and will need to get fully engaged via our congressional delegation, continuing to work with other OR school boards as Bobbie has been doing.

    I appreciate the advice and dialogue.

  13. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Ruth – waiting until November is not a good idea. If anything, waiting simply gives tacit support to the status quo. And even if Obama wins, his calls for changing NCLB have been fuzzy and tepid at best. We need to send him — and a potential McCain administration — a clear message that NCLB is unacceptable in its current reform and strong, unequivocal change is needed. In this way, we help shape the reauthorization debate before it begins in earnest next year.

  14. Comment from anon:

    Steve R.,
    Dialogue with policy makers about policy is useless if the policy makers refuse to discuss and address the policies they control that need to be changed. I don’t think we need to hear from Ruth about how to change national education policy. We need to engage with Ruth and other school board members about changing the transfer policy and other local policies that harm our schools and children, but they refuse to do that. The only explanation for the policy makers not to address racist, classist PPS policies is that those poliy makers are racist and/or classist. I will gladly focus on the policy and not the policy makers when the policy makers stop being the problem.

  15. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Anon – the only way national education policy will be changed is when enough local districts and state depts. of education issue strong language on NCLB, letting the feds know where local schools stand. WA state issued their strong statement. That’s a great step and will let the feds know that they have to change things. Change comes from pressure from the grass roots.

  16. Comment from anon:

    I agree that NCLB needs to drastically change or end, and I would support the the Oregon state superintendent issuing a statement like WA. And our school board members can also issue strong language to the feds about changing NCLB right after they change the PPS transfer policy. Otherwise they’re a bunch of hypocrites.

    We can dialogue with our local policy makers about whether they should pressure the feds to change NCLB by criticizing the law, or we can put our own grassroots energy into pressuring the feds to change national policy and pressuring our school board members to change local policy. I think complaints from school district officials about NCLB will actually carry less weight with the feds than grassroots pressure from parents, taxpayers, and voters anyway because of course school districts that aren’t meeting NCLB are going to criticize the law.

    If PPS wants to take a stand on NCLB they should do it through local action that protects the schools from NCLB sanctions and deemphasizes testing like other school districts have done. Resolutions with “strong language” and lobbying in DC is a waste of our school board members time that would be better spent elsewhere. NCLB sucks, but don’t let it divert attention and energy from the even more extreme local policies that need to be change. Unless PPS policies change, ending NCLB will not signicantly improve our local schools.

  17. Comment from Terry:

    Again I agree with Peter, Ruth. Waiting until November isn’t good enough. We need to let the politicians know how we feel with an official, board-generated, and strongly-worded resolution in opposition to NCLB.

    I also agree with “anon”, with one caveat. Portland’s transfer policy (and emphasis on school choice) predates NCLB mandates and is something that needs to addressed by the board. BUT, the federal law and district policy are inextricably linked. Opposition to federally mandated transfers is a necessary step toward limiting (or eliminating) neighborhood to neigborhood school transfers.

    I would also point out that board members are democratically elected (sort of) representatives of “parents, taxpayers, and voters.” In that sense, board action is effectively grassroots action.

  18. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Terry and anon – piling on here, but Terry is absolutely right that “federal law and district policy are inextricably linked. Opposition to federally mandated transfers is a necessary step toward limiting (or eliminating) neighborhood to neighborhood school transfers.”

    But it’s important to note the even larger frame, which is that nearly every aspect of schools — esp. curriculum — is subject to the federal law, albeit in an indirect way and in a way that the feds and PPS officials would deny. NCLB prevents substantive change from occurring. So even if we could magically work out the transfer policy and achieve more equity in PPS, all our schools would still be subject to the test and punish regime of NCLB. And, because they would still be subject to NCLB, they would be severely limited in terms of the quality of the curriculum. The “good” schools have been lucky so far. But as the AYP requirements go up, schools will have to focus on getting their scores up at the expense of a broad-based curriculum. OR schools have, by and large, been able to avoid this problem that so many other school districts are facing because the OR Dept of Ed low-balled and gamed the AYP requirements. But now the chickens are coming home to roost. The 2007-08 AYP targets were ten points higher than the previous year, and look at the huge increase in the number of “failing” schools. There’s another huge bump of ten points in 2010-11, when 70% of all kids have to be proficient in reading and math. Then, the very next year, it goes up to 80%. Then, the next year (2012) to 90%. So from now to 2010, with the threat of even more schools being labeled as “failing,” the district will have no option but to focus on raising test scores. And raising test scores means test prep, in whatever form the district spins it. The curricula — esp. at the elementary level — are driven by skills that are tested on the state tests. Skills mastery over the year is measured in regular skills-based assessments. These assessments inform instruction. Ergo, curriculum = test prep.
    We have to stand up to this nonsense and declare the emperor has no clothes.

  19. Comment from Lakeitha:

    One important step that we as parents can take is to opt our children out of the mandated standardized tests. One thing is for sure, if no one is taking the tests, the district is going to have to do something different.

  20. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Lakeitha – I spoke to someone at OR Dept of Ed in May. You are allowed to “withhold your child from participation in statewide assessment” for two reasons: (1) religious beliefs or (2) a disability that prevents your child from taking the test. He said that you need to submit your request in writing to the district and state the request, the reason for the request, and what you will do with your child while the other kids are taking the tests. He said that districts are generally open to these sorts of things. I asked him if there were any punitive elements to this, i.e., could the district punish your child for not participating? Here’s where it gets eery. He said that while there are no provisions that say what such punishments might be, there is nothing preventing the district from taking punitive measures. I chuckled at this and said it sounded pretty Orwellian to me: no explicit provisions for force exist, but the threat of force looms as an option. And it’s entirely up to the district.

    One other thing that you may or may not know: NCLB requires 95% participation from each tested sub-group. So if a bunch of white kids or Asian kids or black kids opted out of the test, the school would not meet the 95% participation requirement and would, therefore, fail to make AYP. And then the force of the law begins to take effect. Year 2 of not making AYP, as you probably know, means students can transfer to another school that is making AYP. This is the major impediment to getting parents to participate in wide-scale test boycotts, i.e., opting out of testing could really hurt the school and the district. Think the Feds knew this in advance??

    My argument has been that wide-scale test boycotts are one of the few the ways to get national attention paid to NCLB and to get serious changes made. You have to get parents to believe that short-term pain leads to long-term gain. If you can make this argument, you should be appointed Grand Poobah of the Universe.


    This is a huge, huge, huge battle that is unbelievably important. And yet most parents I talk to are clueless. No offense to them, but they simply don’t know the details of the law.

  21. Comment from Anne T.:

    Great discussion.
    I believe that the Washington State superintendent came out with her opinion ONLY because thousands of Washington parents, teachers and students have been organizing for years against NCLB and the WASL test. And cynically, if she can focus on NCLB, then she won’t have to deal with the massive criticisms of the state test, the WASL.

    As for Obama’s education program-I’m sorry, but it is one of the weakest parts of his platform. He supports merit pay,privatization through promotion of charter schools, and reform of NCLB, not the abolishment of NCLB. Go to Terry Olson’s blog (Steve has a link on this site) for a discussion of these issues and who was lobbying for privatization at the Democratic Convention.
    We must take action now, not after November, to stem the tide of privatization. The Chicago students who walked out enmasse of their schools today in protest of inequitable funding and other racist inequities are a good example of what needs to be done. And Obama be likely to notice that, since he is from Chicago.