The Austin Chronicle

Bad Medicine?

No Child Left Behind prescribed for Austin schools – but the cure may be worse than the illness

By Rachel Proctor May, September 30, 2005, News

Early this month, the hallways were packed at Anderson High's back-to-school night. Parents jammed the cafeteria, crowding around tables for the school's 22 booster clubs, while cheerleaders in microscopic skirts tripped about and giggled. At a picnic table outside, Cheryl Knockless sat with her freshman son Brandon, waiting for the principal's address that would kick off the night. Knockless said the bustling scene was different from the low involvement she had grown used to at Dobie, the Northside middle school Brandon had attended. It was just one sign that she had done the right thing by transferring her son from Reagan (his designated neighborhood high school over in the Northeast) to Anderson, just off of Steck and Mesa – a choice made available under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "I'm very, very pleased," she said with a smile.

Enacted in 2001, NCLB requires any U.S. school that does not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on standardized tests in the same subject for two years in a row to allow its students to transfer to better-performing schools. The transfer option is the first "intervention" in a five-stage school improvement plan that, NCLB promises, will move all schools toward success (schools move to later steps only if they fail to improve – "The NCLB Game," p.27). The idea behind the transfers is twofold. First, no student should be stuck in a bad school. But it's also way to pay homage to the much-disputed logic of "school choice" – that marketlike "competition" will force all schools to improve – without directly opening the slimy and contentious can of worms that also contains private-school vouchers. This is the first year the option was available to Austin students at the beginning of the school year (last year, students could transfer in January).

So far in Austin, parents haven't been clamoring to pile their kids onto the crosstown buses: Out of about 5,600 eligible students from Johnston, Lanier, Reagan, and William B. Travis high schools, by the Aug. 26 deadline only 135 transferred to Anderson, and 93 moved to Crockett. That number is dwarfed by the roughly 3,000 high school students who transfer in and out of every school in the district under AISD's long-standing policy of open enrollment. Unlike regular AISD transfers, however, NCLB students are provided transportation to their new schools. Those buses, along with the tutoring NCLB requires AISD to provide low-income students at low-performing schools (but not to middle-income students at the same schools, and not to low-income students at high-performing schools), account for about $1.3 million of AISD's budget – over 7% of the $18 million the federal government provides altogether for poor schools.

Another difference is that AISD only offers transfers until schools are full. NCLB, by contrast, does not accept space limitations as an excuse not to give a transfer to any eligible child who wants one. Already, if all the NCLB transfer-eligible AISD students took advantage of the option, AISD wouldn't have anywhere to put them.

This consequence has in fact materialized in other parts of the country. In some New York and Georgia districts, students hoping to transfer to a "good" school found themselves transferred into campuses that, whatever their academic strengths, were also severely overcrowded. ("When capacity is an issue, school officials will need to employ creativity and ingenuity in creating capacity in campuses to receive additional students," is the helpful guidance the TEA's NCLB center offers for handling such a situation.) Julie Lyons at AISD says the creative, ingenious folks Downtown have considered shipping students to other districts, or opening satellite campuses – offering an "Anderson at Reagan" option, for example – should the need ever arise.

In the short term, NCLB transfers are of very limited impact in AISD. However, the phenomenon bears consideration now because it's only the first step in a series of increasingly dramatic consequences for schools that fail to meet targets for improvement that nudge a little higher each year, with 100% of students expected to perform at grade level by 2014 – or else. In principle, of course, that's a laudable goal – if, that is, NCLB-dictated remedies really can bring much-needed improvement to Texas schools.

If, on the other hand, the coming years prove that NCLB isn't enough, even high-performing schools have reason to fear for their futures. For current example, even as the federal accountability system requires Anderson to accept transfers from low-performing schools, Anderson itself received a failing rating this year from the parallel state accountability system. While some see the rating as a one-time mistake, the ever-raising accountability bar leads others to see it as an ominous omen for the future.

"If the bar keeps being raised and money doesn't increase, eventually we'll all find ourselves in the situation where one or more of our subgroups fail," said Anderson parent Kalí Rourke. "We'll all be unacceptable."

Divide and Standardize

Space was at a huge premium at Anderson's first PTA meeting of the year. As moms (and one dad) filed into a room decorated with press coverage of the school's prestigious International Baccalaureate program, principal David Kernwein kept jumping up from his seat to retrieve more chairs from other rooms. Kernwein, a grey-haired man with an authoritative manner, was slated to deliver a status report on the school. In recent years Anderson has received numerous national accolades, and in his report, Kernwein promised the school's quality would remain as high as ever. "The standards are high, the expectations are high, and we have tremendous parent and community support," he said.

At the time, however, Kernwein was still performing damage control over the "unacceptable" rating the school had received two weeks before in the Texas accountability system. Like NCLB ratings, the state ratings are based on students' scores on the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. Both systems also share the controversial feature that, after repeated poor performance, schools can be taken over by outside institutions, which could be private, for-profit corporations. Both systems also separately rate the performance of students in different "subgroups": low-income, limited-English, and special education students, as well as students of each race. It is this feature that nailed Anderson: despite high overall scores, the unacceptable rating came from the performance of 66 special education students on an alternative assessment called the SDAA II. About a third of the "unacceptable" schools in Texas earned the rating for that same reason. (Schools weren't told their SDAA II scores would count toward their ratings until well into the school year, so many were caught off-guard; AISD is actually appealing the rating.) No matter how few students are in a failing subgroup, the consequences affect the entire school.

On the one hand, it is indeed unacceptable for an otherwise high-performing school to let special education students – or students in any other subgroup – languish. But to the Anderson community, the rating also feels unfair and dismissive of the achievements of the many. "When the TEA says a school is unacceptable, a lot of people will just believe it," said Anderson PTA president Mary Lengel. "I think a lot of people don't really know what that means." Lengel sees the logic behind a system that points out the weaknesses in even strong schools, so the Anderson community knows where it needs to improve. But, she adds, "somehow it seems to have gone awry."

At the PTA meeting, Kernwein quickly shifted from the school's response to the unacceptable rating (in short, a massive focus on getting special ed students up to speed) to the consequences of other schools' low NCLB ratings. A last-minute influx of NCLB transfers, he explained, would bring the school close to its 2,200-student capacity, requiring makeshift accommodations like converting a teacher's lounge and journalism lab into extra classrooms. "I'm not sure how many [transfer students] will come," Kernwein said. "Right now we have over 100." He explained that AISD would spend its (scarce) dollars to bus students to Anderson from as far south as Travis High on Oltorf. The moms looked at one another, concerned; one snorted and rolled her eyes. Many were no doubt mulling the immediate impacts of the crowded classrooms and upheaval. However, some parents also see a longer-term threat to the school – Anderson's ability to continue beating the ratings game.

Getting Juicy Scores

The transfer option reflects the presumption that students can go from a "bad" school to a "good" one and automatically succeed. Parent Rourke worries that students who transfer from other schools, precisely because the education they were receiving wasn't up to snuff, won't have the preparation they need to succeed in a high-expectation environment like Anderson, where many students have been prepped for years for advanced coursework. "The challenge is, how do we get these kids on track real fast?" she said. "I have no doubt Dr. Kernwein will do his best, but I don't expect our test scores to look juicy for a while."

The idea that an influx of students from struggling schools will hurt Anderson's scores smacks a bit of what George W. Bush, in pitching NCLB with one of his educational mantras, described as the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Rourke is courageous to speak honestly about the educational challenges facing students from low-performing schools: Such schools also tend to be high-minority. In a racially segregated district like Austin, it's possible that for some, a different kind of bigotry underlies concerns about transfers. However, Rourke's concerns about preparedness are well-founded. Test data clearly indicates that even Austin's high-performing schools have trouble bridging the gap between well-off students and low-income ones, who form a large portion (although by no means 100%) of the students in transfer-eligible schools. Last year at Anderson, the passing rates for low-income students lagged well behind the rest of the school – according to AYP data, 61% of low-income students passed their reading tests, compared to 85% of the school as a whole; for math, those numbers are 53% and 82%.

In theory, NCLB will force Anderson – and every other school – to get those students up to speed. But when the consequences of failing to improve include, at least potentially, a total school overhaul, some wonder whether the system will throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Some critics of the system go so far as to suggest that at least some NCLB backers want to do just that.

"The purpose of the accountability system was to shine a bright light on the children who needed more help, and it works very well for that," said Carolyn Boyle, a public school activist who frankly considers No Child Left Behind a tool in a "conspiracy" to pave the way for vouchers. "But some people are trying to use the accountability system to say that public schools are not doing a good job," Boyle points out, "and hence we need to privatize."

It all boils down to whether NCLB's remedies – the five-stage school improvement plan of which the least prepared schools in AISD are in Stage Two – can really fix our struggling schools, or whether they simply set schools up to fail. NCLB critics argue that the law poses school improvement as primarily an issue of management, emphasizing the replacement of teachers, curriculum, and principals, rather than as an issue of resources, such as hiring more teachers to devote more individual time to each student. Others argue that money isn't everything. AISD trustee Robert Schneider, who represents the relatively well-off Southwest, has often complained in board meetings that years of extra funding at schools like Reagan and Johnston, where per-pupil spending is about twice that of schools like Anderson, hasn't yielded the promised results. The fact that low-income students perform better at high-achieving schools, but not nearly as well as their well-off classmates, suggests there's some truth in both arguments. As the era of accountability progresses, the debate will no doubt continue over the proper balance of management and money in the magic school-fixing potion everyone hopes is out there. But given the profoundly mixed results that have come from the other major experiment in market-influenced school improvement – charter schools, a whopping 36% of which missed AYP this year, compared to 11% of regular schools – there's good reason to doubt that market forces and alternative management alone are quite what the doctor ordered.

One Step Forward ...

As Anderson was sorting out the consequences of its high and low ratings, the state of Connecticut was filing suit against the federal government. The suit claims that fulfilling federal NCLB requirements cost more money than the federal government provides Connecticut each year, and thus the law constitutes an illegal "unfunded mandate." The suit was attacked by local civil rights leaders, who complained that overwhelmingly well-off and Anglo Connecticut was simply trying to wiggle out of its responsibility to educate its most struggling learners (indeed, the civil rights community nationwide remains divided over the law). Nevertheless, Connecticut is not alone.

In a press conference organized by the nonprofit Civil Society Institute, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was joined by speakers from across the political spectrum lobbing a gamut of NCLB complaints, now well-known in education circles. A Republican legislator from Utah complained the federal government had no business telling the fine people of Utah what to do in their schools. A bomb-throwing Minnesota state rep advanced the argument that NCLB was a plot to promote vouchers. A California nonprofit executive annoyed the Utah Republican by bemoaning a provision of NCLB that requires schools to deliver student information to military recruiters. And Laredo Superintendent Sylvia Bruni said simply that test-driven accountability on its own doesn't improve student achievement – in fact, she believes that 20 years of dumbed-down, test-centric curriculum under the Texas accountability system is responsible for a younger generation weak in the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills businesses need to thrive.

All that acknowledged, even critics of the law agree it's done one good thing. It's prevented the Connecticuts of the world from concealing (intentionally or not) the poor performance of the few within the stellar achievements of the many. "I think [NCLB] has drawn to our attention dramatically that we need to do something for our poor or minority students," said National Academy of Education President Nel Noddings. "But what it has suggested doing is hurting those students more than any others, and that's bad."

As the parents at Anderson's back-to-school night filled the gymnasium to near-capacity to hear the principal's welcome, few appeared poor, and few were minority. Time will tell whether the rumble of concern over transfers from struggling schools(who themselves come from across the racial and economic scale) is justified, or whether it simply represents fear of change. In the meantime, NCLB brings obvious rewards for some individual parents, such as Knockless: It brings a chance for Brandon to study in a school with good test scores, in a safe neighborhood, in a school with a mixed racial demographic. ("It was important to me that he wasn't in a majority African-American setting," she explained, unapologetically.) It brings Knockless the opportunity to join forces with other involved parents, and it brings the Anderson community another dedicated mother eager to oversee personally her son's education. As Lengel, the PTA president, urged parents to get involved in another great year, the slender woman sat alone in the stands – Brandon had wandered off to get acquainted with some new schoolmates. Knockless smiled as Kernwein again touted the school's achievement. "We have an outstanding school here," the principal said. "One of the reasons Anderson is great is nights like tonight. I've been to open houses at lots of other schools, and often it's hard to count 100 people on the whole campus." The assembled parents gave themselves a round of applause.

Reagan High, Brandon's would-be home school, is of course one of the hard-luck campuses NCLB was designed to fix. Considering its recent history – persistent low scores, frequent administrative turnover, occasional headline violence – it's hard to quarrel with his mother's decision to give him a fresh start at Anderson. In fact, it's hard to argue with NCLB's vision that there should be an Anderson – a safe, positive, academically vigorous school – in every neighborhood. The argument that will continue to rage (and that deserves to rage, for the stakes are so high) is whether NCLB's remedies can truly heal, or whether the medicine will instead kill the patient. end story

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