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Making a bad law even worse

November 9, 2007 | Page 3

MEGAN BEHRENT, a high school English teacher in New York City, examines one anti-teacher provision hidden away in the debate over the No Child Left Behind At.

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WITH THE No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act up for renewal in Congress, politicians are pushing proposals that will make an already bad law even worse.

If a vote isn't taken on reauthorizing NCLB, the old version will stay in place. So the pressure is on for members of Congress to "fix" some aspects considered, even by Republicans, to have failed.

Last July, Rep. George Miller, the Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, said the law--which passed Congress in 2002 thanks to support from a number of Democrats--"is not fair, not flexible and is not funded."

But one little talked-about provision of the renewal, proposed by Miller himself, not only wouldn't "fix" NCLB, but it would make the situation of teachers that much worse--basing individual merit pay on the outcome of standardized test scores.

Miller's proposal would "mandate linking federal funds to individual merit pay based on test outcomes for each teacher's students," according to The New York Teacher, the publication of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

Merit pay will in no way improve student learning in schools. Nor will it reward "good teachers." Instead, by pitting them against one another, it will make it more difficult for educators to work collaboratively to provide real education for their students--and to fight for more resources and funding for their schools.

Miller's proposal for individual merit pay, or "performance-based incentives," is the latest in a string of attacks that seeks to divert responsibility for the state of education away from the systematic underfunding and inequality in the nation's public schools--by placing the blame on teachers.

Like NCLB itself, such measures use the rhetoric of accountability to cover for politicians who consistently refuse to provide the funding and resources that could improve education, through proven reforms such as smaller class sizes.

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NCLB WAS passed with bipartisan support in 2002. It instituted a national regime of high-stakes testing, requiring all schools to test students in grades three to eight annually on reading and math, and to show yearly progress through increasing test scores, with a goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by the year 2014.

Schools that can't meet these arbitrary and unrealistic goals face increasingly harsh penalties. Those classified as "in need of improvement" must institute reforms such as allowing students to transfer to another school or providing supplemental services, often from private companies.

The widely touted school transfer program has been a complete failure--as there are simply not enough places in other schools to meet the demand.

In New York City, for example, the publication Inside Schools reported that in the 2005-2006 school year, only about 3,000 of the 185,000 students eligible to transfer actually did so--and those who did frequently found themselves in schools that were no better than the ones they left.

Far from improving conditions, these provisions divert funds away from the neediest schools, leaving them to fall further and further behind.

The harshest penalties under NCLB are reserved for schools that fail to meet their goals for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) over five years. "Failing" schools are required to replace all or most of their staff, contract with an outside entity to run the school, institute major governance and staffing changes, turn over governance to the state or reopen as a charter school.

While most of the provisions of NCLB have yet to be enforced, they point to a grim future for public education if more and more schools face such penalties under a reauthorized NCLB.

NCLB has also revitalized the flagging charter school movement--and teachers' unions have caved in opposing them. In New York, the UFT actually opened two of its own charter schools, and it recently negotiated a deal with Green Dot, a charter operator, to launch another.

Far from providing equal standards in education, as its proponents claim, the real impact of NCLB is to maintain and increase vast inequalities in education by penalizing even more the most underfunded schools. The law sets up schools for failure, and then punishes them when they do fail.

After more than five years of NCLB, with over 10,000 schools deemed "failures," there has been no progress in closing the achievement gap.

Instead, the law has ushered in a new era of "teaching to the test"--with instruction focused on test-taking rather than learning. In addition to its effects on students, this has lined the pockets of the testing industry.

Many critics of NCLB have been vocal in the recent debates about reauthorization. Most, however, focus primarily on ways to "fix" the most egregious provisions of NCLB, such as the overemphasis on testing, rather than on challenging the underlying logic of the bill itself.

Thus, many Democrats who voted for the bill say the problem is that the Bush administration has failed to provide adequate funding to implement it. But the real question, as Stan Karp asks in Rethinking Schools, is "What's the right funding level for a bad law?"

More funding is desperately needed in the nation's public schools, but these funds should go to smaller class sizes and improved conditions, not to the testing industry and private educational consulting companies most likely to benefit from increased money devoted to NCLB.

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THE TWO largest national teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, supported NCLB when it was first passed, but they have become increasingly vocal in their criticism.

In response to Miller's proposal to link merit pay to test scores, the unions rightly spoke out in opposition, urging members to write to legislators in protest.

Unfortunately, the UFT recently accepted another version of merit pay in New York City--school-wide "bonuses" paid when low-performing schools boost test scores and other measures of performance set by the Department of Education.

Rather than merit pay going to individual teachers, as under the typical proposal, the money will be doled out by a school-based committee of teachers and administrators, although principals will have the leverage to push their own priorities.

UFT President Randi Weingarten argued in favor of the plan as a way of "shutting the door" to more insidious forms of merit pay. But it, in fact, opens that door--by accepting the logic that teachers are to blame because they somehow lack the incentive to educate their students.

This concession by the largest teachers' union local in the U.S. sets a precedent that other school districts will try to follow--with all the drawbacks of merit pay proposals on the national level.

Not only will it encourage the overemphasis on testing as a measure of student learning, but it will play a divisive role in schools and in the UFT by pitting teachers of different schools against one another over test outcomes that they can do little or nothing to control.

As the debates about reauthorizing NCLB continue, it's crucial that teachers' unions organize to oppose any form of merit pay tied to federal funding for our schools.

To do so, we need to organize teachers in our unions and schools to build a movement that can shift "accountability" for unequal education back where it belongs--on the politicians and legislators.

Instead of the punitive measures of NCLB, we need to demand real education reform. This should begin with an equal system of funding to provide the greatest resources to the neediest schools, not the other way around. To close the "achievement gap," we need to fight for an end to the segregation in our schools. Instead of increased testing, we need smaller class sizes and better conditions.

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