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California Schools Hit the NCLB Wall


A fresh report in the journal Science confirms what many of us have been saying for years. California schools are on a collision course with NCLB targets.

The Science Daily tells us

The researchers report in the Sept. 26 issue of Science that mathematical models they used in their analysis predict that nearly all elementary schools in California will fail to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements for proficiency by 2014, the year when all students in the nation need to be proficient in ELA and mathematics, per the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" (NCLB).


In January of this year, I published an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee that raised this same red flag. I wrote:

A few years back there were some who warned about the trouble we were headed for in the home mortgage industry, but we still have had to wait until millions are facing foreclosure to act. California schools are heading for a similar fate, and once again, we seem to be waiting for calamity rather than looking ahead to avert it.
This calamity is the full impact of No Child Left Behind on our schools. Up until now, the brunt has been felt largely by schools attended by poor folks and immigrants, so few have objected to them being labeled “failing schools”. But there is a big shift about to begin. NCLB demands that all students be proficient in English and mathematics by 2014. Currently, only 43 percent of the state’s six million students are scoring as proficient in reading, and 41 percent as proficient or better in math.
Student performance has improved slightly over the past six years, according to state test data, but most schools are about to start hitting a wall. That’s because California’s NCLB targets require proficiency levels to increase substantially in each of the next six years, in order for all students to reach proficiency.

Another article in the San Francisco Chronicle this week reveals a second facet of this looming crisis. The process of restructuring which is imposed on schools that fail to hit their targets simply is not working, according to a study published by the Center on Educational Progress.

The study, released today, found that the number of schools failing to meet achievement goals nationwide under No Child Left Behind jumped by 50 percent since last year - with California leading the way.

California now has more than 1,000 persistently failing schools forced to undergo drastic restructuring, the study found. That's more than any other state, yet few are being helped by the mandated process.

Schools that fail to meet targets two years in a row enter “Program Improvement.” The study discovered that few schools ever move out of this purgatory, and state funds have declined so there are few resources to help them do so.

My column touched on this as well:

In Oakland, we are in the second generation of reconstituted schools. The first round of schools opened to replace those closed five years ago has hit the fourth year of missing achievement targets, and a number of them have closed. Some of the new schools are innovative and meeting the needs of their students, but even these are likely to crash into the NCLB wall soon.

I concluded:

There is little doubt that California schools are on a collision course with NCLB mandates. We can wait until we crash into the wall ahead and then deal with the wreckage. But our students will be much better off if we take a deep breath and realize there might be a better way.

What would that better way look like? First of all, we will need to put standardized assessments in their proper place as one of a number of indicators of school performance. Other indicators such as classroom-based assessments should be used as well. Second, we need to shift the emphasis away from punishment and the removal of resources, and look to bring a broader range of resources to bear to get schools on track. As the Broader and Bolder initiative suggests, we cannot treat schools as if they can shoulder this burden alone.

It does not look like much will be happening regarding NCLB in the next few months. Let's hope that we can pick up the pieces once a new administration is in place next spring.

What do you think? Are schools in your state hitting the NCLB wall as well? Is restructuring resulting in success – or merely giving the schools a few years before they fail once more? What steps do you think a new administration should take to support education reform?


I'm not sure exactly what the numbers are for New York State, but I see the amount of damage these high-stakes tests are doing to our children and to our schools. There is so much emphasis on teaching to the tests that little time is left for critical thinking and developing rich understandings of content. I think that a new administration really should repeal NCLB. If not that, then I think that there needs to be much more emphasis on formative assessment rather than summative assessments as ways to measure progress, and I agree with you that there needs to be less emphasis on punishment of failing schools. I wrote about your post on my blog, as it is quite relevant to what we were just discussing in one of my teacher education courses! Thanks!

It does not take a mathematician to realize that 100% is an impossible goal when you are dealing with the diversity represented in a population of millions of students. Our school is running around 90% in both areas(math and reading) and has been for over 10 years. We have now hit the point where our growth goals will not be met and we will be a failing school according to AYP. How can you be a failing school when 90% of your students are at grade level?

The damage NCLB does is hardest on minority and low-income students, as they are the ones trapped in schools buckling under the testing craze--wealthy, whiter schools, that make their testing goals because of increased literacy from the outset, can still focus on critical thinking and a greater depth of learning. Students at schools like mine are subjected to mindless multiple choice drills that deaden the mind. NCLB is the ultimate in class warfare.

I agree with your observations regarding who has been hit hardest by NCLB. The low-income and minority schools were in the lower quartiles, so they were in trouble from the start. But now that we are halfway to 2014, the targets are getting harder and harder to meet, so soon almost *every* school will miss their goals. I think that politically that will be untenable, and we will see NCLB crumble. The challenge is for us to communicate a deeper critique of the ways schools have been judged and punished over the past decade, and develop some clear alternative ways of describing and communicating excellence in our schools.

Yesterday's New York Times took notice of the crisis in NCLB, in an article entitled "Under ‘No Child’ Law, Even Solid Schools Falter"

The article states: "A state-by-state analysis by The New York Times found that in the 40 states reporting on their compliance so far this year, on average, 4 in 10 schools fell short of the law’s testing targets, up from about 3 in 10 last year."

Four in ten this year, five in ten next year -- pretty soon we will all be in the bin.

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