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“No Child Left Behind” Act is a major policy decision by the Federal government aimed at sweeping changes in delivering high quality education in public schools. But the policy needs to be analyzed from the historic perspective, the rationale for the Act, the controversial aspects of the policy and actual benefits gained in practice. Finally, the policy analysis must be aimed at determining whether the Act has been successful or has failed in achieving the intended goals and also, whether these successes outweigh the negative fall outs as pointed by the adverse criticism about the policy.
Education is considered as a fundamental strength of a nation and governments all over the world have taken up the responsibility of determining the content, delivery and mechanism of educational systems. Budgetary allocation for education happens to be a major component that speaks of the importance the governments have attached to it. This gives rise to situations, where the governments take a very active role in controlling many aspects of education. But since these decisions are subject to political one-up-man-ship or implementing policies based on the biased ideologies the results may not be always beneficial.
This necessitates a close study by the social scientists, educators and even public to analyze education policy instead of going by the superficial arguments put forth by the protagonists or the biased criticism of the opponents and take a balanced view.
Basis of policy analysis of NCLB:
No Child Left Behind is a major Act with far reaching effects and hence the policy deserves a thorough analysis. The analysis must try to contemplate on the various aspects related to the act, such as the historic perspectives, role of government involvement, benefits of the Act, ethical and social justice concerns affected by the law, financial implications and other aspects. Since the law is already in force, it can be also analyzed from the results obtained so far and also from the benefits accrued, goals reached and failures of the achievement of these goals from past as a means of contemplating to correct the flaws and build on its strengths. It is to be noted that the Obama Administration is seeking sweeping changes to the existing provisions to the policy as a result of the policy analysis that point out to the failure to focus on education rather than getting the numbers right by focusing on the standardized tests. In fact, recently eleven states have sought relief from NCLB provisions in exchange for imparting higher standards. Of these requirements is the exclusion of the provisions of requirement of all students be proficient in math and English by 2014. More importantly, they are offering their own plans to achieve the very objectives of NCLB by having their own systems of accountability, educator evaluation systems and plans to overhaul poorly performing schools. This only goes to show that the states are reluctant to implement NCLB, though they do not have any objection to achieve the very goals of purportedly set to be achieved by NCLB.
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This clearly shows that the policy analysis of NCLB has benefitted the schools and state administrator to come up with better arrangement to achieve the same objectives.
Historic perspective of No Child Left Behind
Low performance of public schools has been a common phenomenon observed not only in the USA, but all over the world. The contrast has been sharper in the countries, where private run education thrives with relatively high levels of freedom. The public schooling system in the USA is no exception. This has given the political powers to come up with many schemes at regular intervals and sometimes these are more than merely making minor changes, improvements and enforcing controls, but initiating sweeping changes that have far reaching changes. No Child Left Behind falls under the latter category. And thus, it calls for a meticulous analysis of this policy.
No Child Left Behind Act is a new avatar of an earlier policy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA of 1965. ESEA was provided for the first time the coming together of Federal and State governments to address the shortcomings of the public schools all over the country by infusing federal funding to support schools and students belonging to socially and economically deprived conditions. Since then, the law was reauthorized every four years, but it was not done during Clinton administration. The Act gained prominence by the phrase coined by George Bush in his presidential campaign- “No Child Left Behind”, which was more than just the reauthorization of the lapsed ESEA, but encompassed greater aims with far reaching implication in education system. The final draft of the Act was to become 1100-page law, which was accepted by the Congress in December 2001. It is important to note that the bill proposed by President Bush received considerable bipartisan support. This is an important factor showing that the issues intended to be addressed by the law are shared by the people across the political spectrum.
The full title of the Act indicates very clearly the intended goals set to be achieved by this legislation, “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility and choice so that no child is left behind”. So, it is necessary to analyze the act not only in the context of the benefits, but also the factors of “accountability, flexibility and choice,” which the act considers as a means of achieving the goal of leaving no child behind in getting proper education. These are the tools that the Act intends to use to implement the policy.
Features of the Act
US Department of Education defines four main features of No Child Left Behind Act. They are stronger accountability to the results, enhanced freedom to the communities and the states, implementation of proven education methods and more choices for the students and parents. The act specifies the ways these features are realized. To achieve greater accountability and responsibility, the schools are required to report their progress in the annual reports. They must implement standardized tests as means of measuring the progress. The goals of the Act necessitate providing better services to the students to be successful in the school and achieve growth compared to those in the private schools. The schools that fail to achieve the set goals are advised to change their strategies and take corrective measures on the sections they are showing lesser progress. The states and schools have autonomy in allocating the federal funds in ways they feel is necessary to cater for their specific requirements. They need not follow a centralized “checklist,’ but rather have their own priorities and implement them. The schools are also free to choose the proven methodologies and research validated programs and using the services of highly qualified teachers to achieve the goal of improving the standard of the education delivered based on the annual report that shows weakness in different parameters. Finally, students and parents will have the freedom to choose their schools in case the school in the district is underperforming for two consecutive years. The advantage is not just the choice of changing the schools, but the students belonging to low income families can receive supplementary educational services, like tutoring and after school services and special school sessions in summer, if their school fails to perform up to standards.
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Accountability of schools for achieving results
The law marked clear expectations from the schools and the states for the first time to be publicly accountable for the progress of the students. The standards are set and used in ways to equalize educational quality and opportunities. The child will get the same standards of education irrespective of where he or she studies. The schools have to give annually, the standardized tests, which will check whether students meet the required benchmark specified achieved during a given timeframe. The law also specifies the consequences for failing to meet the standards. The standards are to be defined by the states through a formula named Adequate Yearly Progress. This quantifies the measure of the progress of the schools and also specifies what progress has to be achieved every year by the schools failing in achievement of the standards. If the schools fail to achieve AYP targets then the state has to provide the help. The Act also spells the measures to be taken, if the school fails to achieve progress in six years that will call for fundamental changes. The schools must be clear about their needs of “highly qualified teacher” and spell their qualifications and report the specifications to the public. There is also a need for transparency required by the Act, for the school to report to public about the progress they are achieving in various parameters for different groups of students.
Benefits of NCLB
The transparency made possible by the compulsory reporting of the progress of the schools benefits the parents the most, as parents along with the children are mostly affected by the low standards; in past they were not even aware of the standards of education that was being imparted and had no choice in the matter. The Act has brought about a major change in the perception in parents by creating awareness about the discrepancies, in what is actually offered and, if it is of lower standard than the accepted norms. This will have a great impact in the continuing efforts at improvements by the managements of the schools and the state authorities. Absence of reporting about any shortcomings was the main cause of falling standards before the implementation of the Act. This had left the public, especially parents not even being aware of the lack of quality education in public schools. But now the reporting requirement helps the school management to understand their shortcomings and tune the delivery mechanism to get improved results with the help of the feedback obtained due to assessment process. This offers a viable mechanism for internal improvements apart from the supervision of the state about the progress or lack of it. Besides, the Act requires yearly testing allowing teachers and principals to fine tune the curriculum to meet the requirements of the students. The most visible benefit of the Act for the schools is that they are now receiving more federal funding compared to any time in past. Department of Education confirmed that the local school districts and states are now recipients of more federal funds than ever, representing the increase of 60% from 2002 to 2003, for instance. Moreover, the schools are quite free on how they spend the funds in creative ways, which are best suited for their needs.
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Negative effects of NCLB and failures:
NCLB has its own share of disadvantages and unexpected problems in achieving the intended results. Most of the problems arise from the practical difficulty in implementing the changes that are assumed to get better results. For example, one solution to improve the teaching standards is to have “highly qualified teachers,” but this is quite a vague description. Certainly, the schools lying in the low performance districts have difficulty to get highly qualified teachers. Many school principals would prefer the State administration directing qualified teachers to their school, rather than finding eminent teachers, as such teachers will not be willing to work in schools that have low ratings. The teachers will prefer the schools with better students and grades, which make the low standard schools to be left with the “leftovers” that are not certainly qualified. This puts the administrators and school principals to pressure of being marked as low performance schools, but without any means of improving the conditions. Besides, many states are unwilling or unable to give the schools with financial resources due to their own budgetary deficits, which the schools need to bring them up to the national standards as required by NCLB.
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A recent report by Centre on Education Policy points to the failure of the policy to achieve the intended results. 48 percent of the public schools failed to come up with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), as required by the act. This figure represents an increase of 39 percent of the schools that did not make the grade compared to the previous year’s figures of 2010. This calls for a serious re-think and policy evaluation as it is showing yearly degradation not the improvement over the years! NCLB requires that the states must set targets of percentage of students scoring proficiently in the standardized tests as well on other indicators of progress. It also dictates that through the policy of supporting financially for the improvements, the states must achieve 100% target in making all the students equally proficient in academic and other performance indicators. A failure to improve on two consecutive years calls for NCLB intervention as stated above. It was expected, that over the years the number of schools that would fail will diminish, because of additional support they would obtain and ultimately reach the target in 2014. But the lack of progress turns all the expectations upside down! The percentage of the schools that failed to achieve has reached 6 year high in 35 states. The trends in all the 50 states have shown increase in failure to achieve, instead of the planned improvements of yearly progress. This clearly points to the policy failure regarding understanding the root cause of the problem and limitation of state policy to expect improvement by additional funding and bureaucratic monitoring with a policy of “carrot and stick”. It is not surprising that the Administration has allowed states to use unprecedented flexibility in applying certain important aspects of NCLB made possible by waiver of policy requirement regarding AYP and even the deadline of 2014. This is clearly an indicator of failure of policy analysis that was undertaken before the law was implemented.
Policy evaluation on Ethical and social consideration of NCLB Act:
Quite apart from the benefits claimed by implementation of this act, the policy must be analyzed with respect to social and ethical issues that the policy is to impact upon. The policy aims at basing the standards on numbers and statistical data and schools will focus more on getting these things right, rather than looking at the student as an individual whole child. The emphasis will be on the whole group, not the individual student. This certainly makes the schools to take a bureaucratic approach neglecting the human element, and in fact, can cause more harm to the students that really need more personal care, and thus, defeat the very purpose of the Act. This prevents teachers to have social concerns, as they do not come under the evaluation criteria. The students coming from disadvantaged sections need support of the teachers, administrator and the school to provide environment conducive to learning taking into consideration of their background. Whereas, the No Child Left Behind has the vey same goals, but the reliance of statistical results as means to measure the extent of delivering these goals simply is contradiction of the aims and the means. Any new law passed to create a better society, must ensure that it serves justice to rectify a wrong and remove barriers to advancement of all and yet must not limit or degrade individual freedom and choices. This is the ethical basis for any law that is implicit. But the intentions behind a law do not necessarily mean that the practical application does ensure that these things are fully achieved. The law aims at making all the students, especially students coming from poor and backward segments, must be assured that they get education and the resultant benefits equally. If the concern of NCLB is to address this ethical and social justice, then question that remains to be answered is, that whether making the school managements and the states accountable as determined by the standardized tests, a proper and effective means to achieve it. The practical results show that it is not. The whole exercise will turn to be a bureaucratic exercise on how to get the numbers right, and thus, defeats the ethical goals of the law.
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If the achievement of high standard by the state enforced law is the intention of NCLB, then the states are following the law in letter, but acting the opposite in the spirit. There is clear evidence (as there is inducement to do so) that the states are lowering the standards so that they can easily reach the targets set for the universal math and English language proficiency. Such aberrations are natural outcome of legislation trying to micromanage vast number of schools with idealistic aims without considering the bureaucratic response of trying to find the least common denominator. The ethical intention of the law thus is getting defeated due to such aberrations that were made necessary by the law. There is also criticism, that NCLB mandate neglects the needs of the talented and gifted in the race to satisfy the requirements of improvements in the average performance.
Financial legislation affecting the policy and its development:
One important aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act is the financial package that is offered to back up the achievements of goals with respect to the improvements in failing schools. This has raised many issues involving the broadening the central government’s role in the area that is constitutionally reserved for the states. Besides, the working of the NCLB makes it possible for increase in the costs for the federal government increasing with each year of failure to achieve in the benchmark set by the Adequate Yearly Progress. The law stipulates that after two years of consecutive failures, students can be transferred out and after three years they must hire from private sources. This involves billions of dollars funding from the federal government to be funneled by the states to the failing schools. The costs are incurred for the failed schools, which need to be provided with Supplemental Educational Services (SES) during or after school hours and this is allotted to private agencies costing $2 billion. But there is low accountability required from the companies. Though the law expects that the schools must have “highly qualified” teachers, the SES providers do not have any such requirements! The schools will get larger share of their consecutively fail for five years. Many provisions of the law make it possible for large amounts of funds transferred through states and districts, which are under NCLB. There are no policies and standards of accountability for spending of these funds. In the least, the law can hold the recipient companies held responsible for the results as much as the school managements are held.
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Conclusion of Policy analysis of No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind Act was promulgated with great expectations - it was claimed as “proudest achievement of Bush Administration”, but many expectations of the law been proved unattainable. There was great enthusiasm and welcoming the law from the angle of social justice, but the practical implementation has left a lot to be accomplished. The increase rather than the decrease of the number of failed schools to achieve the set standards speaks of the colossal failure of the law. The Act had set ethical and social justice standards, as a rationale for achieving the goals of high standard of education for all- leaving no child behind, but the practical aspects like bureaucratic controls, financial aspects and vested interests have defeated the purpose of the law.
This raises the question, whether the state owned education will be able to deliver high quality compared to private institutions, which are free from bureaucratic controls and every one is accountable for achieving better results.