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Inside The Law

Inside The Law

Legal issues at national, state and local levels

Teachers Are Still The Most Important Tool

Having a highly qualified teacher, a key requirement of No Child Left Behind, can make a big difference in student performance on state standardized tests and in college preparation, particularly for minority and high-poverty students.

The Education Trust recently released a report, Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality, that shows many low-income and minority students are more likely to have less qualified teachers, according to Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.

"In virtually every state and district, instead of putting kids with less with the most expert teachers we do the opposite," Haycock says. "We take the kids with less and turn around and give them teachers who have less education and less skills. And this practice does grave damage."

The report, in part, focuses on three states, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. Researchers used an index of teacher quality in Illinois, basing it on factors such as how teachers performed on college-admission tests, teacher experience, and the percentage of teachers in a school who failed the state's certification exam on the first try, according to Heather Peske, senior associate for teacher quality at Education Trust. In the highest poverty high schools with high quality teachers, twice as many students met state standards as did students in other high-poverty schools but with low quality teachers. And students in Illinois who attended school with average teacher quality and only took Algebra II were more ready for college than peers who took calculus but were in schools with low quality teachers.

Rep. George Miller, highest ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, says the report proves the cumulative effect poor teachers have on students that need the most. He said cuts in teacher quality funds in the appropriations committee is "not helpful."

Miller adds that schools should give compensation to teachers in more difficult schools.

Objectifying NCLB

It's been four years since the No Child Left Behind law intended to ensure students of all colors, backgrounds, economic status and abilities would be proficient in reading, math and science by 2014.

We recently spoke with Michael Petrilli, who co-wrote, No Child Left Behind, with Frederick (Rick) M. Hess. He is vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school reform organization. The book strives to make sense of a very complicated, detailed law.

Q: What is the main point you and Rick Hess wanted to make in this book?

Petrilli: First of all, it really is meant to be a primer. We're not a making an argument for or against the law. We have our own opinions about it but we wanted to provide a resource for those working on implementing the law, what the law requires so they could understand what the act is trying to achieve and then to make up their own decisions.

Q: Evidently, the book is a matter-of-fact view on the education law that helps educators and especially teachers feel less threatened by the law. How does this book do that?

Petrilli: Our main intention was to provide a very clear overview of the law. The law focuses on details, the testing system. I don't think educators and administrators had much of a chance to hear how this law was going to improve achievement and make education better for poor students. And we lay out criticisms of it and whether or not it's likely to work. And we say here is someone like Kati Haycock, of this liberal advocacy group, and really one of the main driving forces behind the law, more than anyone else.

Education Trust's influence was especially strong when it came to the law's focus on closing the achievement gap and its provision that mandates a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom.

Q: Did you write this book to potentially counteract some of the more negative views of the law that are widely held among educators?

Petrilli: That really was not our intention. We wanted to provide a primer on the law that was neutral that did not take a position for or against the law. I'm in favor of the law and I think Rick is more skeptical. We don't agree on the law itself. But we make sure our opinions are not driving this.

Q: What are the most surprising points you make in the book, that is, what facts do you give that most educators did not realize existed in the law, or thought was in the law and is really not?

Petrilli: It [the law's background] was very much driven by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It's very much a liberal law in the tradition of a Great Society [which included social programs originated by President Johnson.] And that's surprising to many because the law is associated so much with President Bush. It's certainly not just a Republican or George Bush law especially when it comes to the highly qualified teacher provision. That was a provision that the Democrats were pushing, particularly Rep. George Miller.

Q: You point out that Florida has received special treatment, when it allowed the state to exclude the achievement of subgroups in AYP if they were less than 15 percent of the schools' population or under 100 students. Why point this out?

Petrilli: This issue around minimum subgroup sizes has become big after the Associated Press reported that [many] students had been excluded from determining adequate yearly progress results. The book was published before this came out, but we started to see states getting special deals on the side to make it easier to meet AYP. This decision was made in Florida to raise its subgroup sizes. And it's something that I certainly find quite alarming. There will now be Florida schools that will no longer be held accountable for the performance of their low-income, African-American, or Latino children. For example, imagine a middle school that is predominantly white and middle class, but with 10% of its population being African-American and poor. If there are only 80 such students, their scores aren't broken out separately. Thus, the school can make AYP even if all of these students fail the test.

As we describe in this book so much of the rhetoric in the law is to make sure poor students and minority students are not left behind and that schools are held accountable. This goes completely against that idea. And the fact that the governor of the state is the president's brother, sure that is interesting.

Q: What about all the waivers given to states, between secretaries Rod Paige and Spellings, such as reversing the order of school choice and then Supplemental Education Services if schools are not making AYP after two years?

Petrilli: There were some flexibilities given, such as for highly qualified teachers in rural areas in the first few years. But Secretary Paige was careful to draw lines in the sand, saying we're not giving a lot of waivers. Now by the time of the 2004 election, the No Child Left Behind backlash was in full. There was a concern that the state legislatures would opt out of the law and Congress would feel pressured to act after the president won the election.

Margaret Spellings wanted to demonstrate a willingness to be more flexible. The tone changed. Waivers and flexibilities increased dramatically under Secretary Spellings' tenure. Personally, as an analyst I would say I have disagreed with the flexibility offered. I believe she's being flexible about the wrong things. I believe we need to hold schools accountable, but we need to be more flexible over how they run their day-to-day affairs, like how they spend their money and what they teach. Switching the law to give struggling students Supplemental Education Services first and then school choice is popular across the spectrum.

Q: What are the chances of reauthorization in 2007?

Petrilli: It has the same chance that the U.S. soccer team had to win the World Cup. It's [the law is] hugely controversial; it's complex. We'll likely have to wait until after the 2008 election when the new president will put his or her own stamp on No Child Left Behind.

Q: Will NCLB succeed in getting every American student proficient by 2014?

Petrilli: I think we will get students close to proficiency because states will continue to define proficiency to a lower degree. There are no strict standards or definitions of proficiency. Some states are already claiming that 90 percent of their students are proficient. They set a very low bar. My view of how you fix that is you move to a national standard and a national test and have one common benchmark for everyone so you don't have to temporarily lower the standards.

Misleading Measurements

A new report names Wisconsin as the top state in the nation for painting a quixotic picture of student progress.

The state appears to be using fl exibility built into NCLB to hide hard truths-at least according to Kevin Carey, research and policy manager with the independent think tank Education Sector. "There's a very correct instinct to let the states be laboratories of democracy," says Carey. "The devil is in the details."

In his new report Hot Air: How States Infl ate Their Educational Progress Under NCLB, Carey puts forth "The Pangloss Index," ranking states on 11 measures including percent of districts making Adequate Yearly Progress, teacher qualifi cations, and high school graduation rates. While some states rightfully appear high or low on the list, others seem out of place because of the way they report to the federal government.

According to Carey, some states have claimed that 80 percent to 90 percent of their students are profi cient in reading and math, even though external measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress put the number at 30 percent or below.

The DOE may be scaling back its approvals. The department recently turned down four proposals from Texas, including one that would have only counted students' scores in a school if the students had been enrolled at the same school a year earlier.

-Caryn Meyers Fliegler