The statistics are startling. Only about 70 percent of all U.S. students graduate from high school and only 32 percent of them are college-ready. And roughly about 70 percent of all new jobs require at least some degree of post-secondary education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Furthermore, only 20 percent of black students are ready to go to college and only about 16 percent of Hispanic students are ready, according to figures from Jay Greene at The Manhattan Institute, a think tank designed to develop ideas for greater economic choice and individual responsibility.
Meet B. Alexander (Sandy) Kress. He's an Austin-based attorney who was a key designer of the No Child Left Behind act. Kress, a senior education advisor for President Bush, laid out the why's, how's and what's next of NCLB at a recent national EduStat Summit, sponsored by SchoolNet, a data-driven decision-making software company, in New York City. The following is taken from his speech in June and a later telephone interview.
DA: Why were Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals so supportive of this law?
Kress: This law attempts to answer: How are we going to radically change what we're doing? If school districts only see No Child Left Behind as a bunch of mandates, we are less productive and less prone to make dramatic change. ... The truth of it is that No Child Left Behind is more open and more flexible and more inviting of local and state initiatives.
For the savvy, creative administrators who read this, this is a broad road map for what they do anyway. What is No Child Left Behind? You have clear standards. You assess capably, effectively; you look at how well children are doing against those standards; you use the data from those assessments to guide decisions. It's about professional development and the kinds of materials you use, it's about interventions and it's about how you manage. That's how good administrators operate.
If students are doing poorly, there has to be some changes. That's what good managers do. And I think, increasingly, good administrators turn towards solid research.
DA: You say states have more flexibility under this law, not less. Can you explain this?
Kress: In each stage, there is a whole list of steps from which school districts get to pick. That's about as flexible as you get.
We need to know where each subgroup is and where they are relative to proficiency. That is tricky. ... You can give credit to schools that have good growth generally but that may not be making AYP for some subgroups. In some states, if you use one subgroup, say disabled children (and they perform poorly) but the school is doing great with all the other kids, the school is still not making AYP. There is nothing in No Child Left Behind that keeps the state and/or district from honoring that school. There's nothing in No Child Left Behind that says you have to deem that school as failing. ...But we know we need to make more progress with respect to special education students.
First thing that happens is that a school finds out it's not making AYP because of one group or more. The second thing is the school thinks about how to improve, which is what good administrators do anyway. [They] consider if there's a problem with the curriculum--that it's not aligned to the standards, or if teachers need more relevant professional development. ... The next thing, a school district considers is if it's eligible for funds under the law's school improvement [funds] from the state and federal governments.
DA: You talk about data as the key to fixing problems. How does that work?
Kress: We all need to do a better job. At the local and state and federal levels, we must be creative. We need to take data and use it to figure out which children need what and in what way. Also, we have to think about data in a more robust way. A lot of administrators are doing this better and better. ... Can a superintendent sit down at a computer and find out where each and every child in a district is regarding the standards? Can you dial up and say, relative to certain objectives in reading and math at least, can I look longitudinally and see where a specific student is and where subgroups of students are and break it down? ... I want to know how well Juan or Sally, how well these youngsters are doing on objectives. ... I can learn things from the patterns there.
A student might be doing well in Mr. Jones' class and poorly in Mrs. Smith's class. Maybe we need to do things differently with Mrs. Smith. ... The key point I'm making is if you don't have the data then you're guessing what problems you have. With data, you can make more precise decisions.
DA: Where will No Child Left Behind lead the nation, particularly with the upcoming presidential election?
Kress: In the next five, 10, 15 years, ... I think No Child Left Behind will drive us deeper into more sophistication and deeper into knowing where each child is.
I think the world is an increasingly demanding place. ... The real story isn't John Kerry vs. George Bush on education--it's how many youngsters are in your community who are 18 to 25 who have no hope for a good job?
That's the real story. If you want to ask a second question, is it becoming even harder for them as years pass, without a good solid, effective, rigorous education? No Child Left Behind is the first step in the country [trying] to do what it takes to prepare young people for the ever increasing difficult challenge we have.
For those who resist No Child Left Behind in a fundamental way ... they're just not seeing the world the way it is. And they're showing an unwillingness to take on the challenge, which is very real and can be very painful for young people.
DA: How do you get more money from the public to support the mandates of the federal law?
Kress: My political judgment is that the average voter wants to spend more money on education. But they want to first see a system that is improving. ... President Bush's spending in education has been unprecedented. ... If you want to see more resources, the public has to see proof that additional dollars are making a difference in student outcomes and student results."
DA: Will No Child Left Behind fix all problems?
Kress: This will be a very sloppy march. I think the public has to understand that this is not going to be pretty. It's not going to happen overnight. You're not going to see perfect alignment. You're not going to see perfect SAT scores.
I don't think No Child Left Behind is going away. Whether Sen. Kerry or George Bush is president, this is the way we're going to move. If there are changes, they will be more demanding not less. Middle class parents won't tolerate the standards to decrease. They know the demands of work and the value of a bachelor's degree to get jobs.
Angela Pascopella is features editor.