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Inside The Law

Inside The Law

Analyzing, Debating and Explaining No Child Left Behind

Is Pay-off A Political Punching Bag?

Weeks after it was revealed the U.S. Department of Education paid a political pundit to talk up the No Child Left Behind law, errors in judgment have been acknowledge but the debate continues.

Congress is investigating the $240,000 contract with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who has admitted the deal was a mistake, and the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether Williams broke the law by failing to disclose that the education department paid him to support education programs, particularly NCLB, to Williams' mainly minority audience members.

Former Education Secretary Rod Paige had stated that hiring outside experts to help communicate a complex issue is "standard practice in all sectors of our society."

But new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledged in February the "errors of judgment" by the Bush Administration and vowed to investigate. President Bush also acknowledged that federal agencies should stop awarding contracts to outside commentators.

The department, through a contract with public relations firm, Ketchum, Inc., reportedly hired Williams to produce and show television and radio ads in which Paige described the law and encouraged the audience to call the department's information line.

"All of this has been reviewed and is legal. However, I am sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses," Paige had stated.

But others in the education field believe ethical lapses did occur, adding the situation fuels public distrust.

Ross Weiner, policy director of The Education Trust, called the education department's payoff to hype NCLB "bad judgment", "a misuse of funds," and "tawdry PR tricks." He adds the money could have been more effectively used to support community-based organizations to foster more parental involvement in education. "Worse still, USDOE has had the audacity to defend its bad decision instead of simply admitting the mistake and moving on to the important business of addressing the many shortcomings of its NCLB implementation efforts," Weiner says in a written statement. "The real shame is that NCLB could win strong public support on its merits."

Barbara Knisely, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators, adds that while the association hasn't heard comments from its members, the ethical question goes both ways, on the part of Williams to accept money and not expose that, as well as the DOE. She adds that superintendents are held to the highest ethical behavior. "The government trying to sell information to the people doesn't seem to work well in our democratic system," Knisely says.

Comparing Apples to Oranges

What's good for NAEP isn't necessarily good for NCLB.

It appears discrepancies in proficiency are clear when comparing student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the state's standardized tests. Under NCLB, each state compiled plans that defined what was considered proficient in reading and math tests.

Many times, students are faring well on their state tests but poorly according to the national test, or NAEP, according to The New York Times. NCLB requires all students reach proficiency in state reading and math tests by 2014.

The problem is, are states setting up undemanding definitions of proficiency, and in the end, hurting students in the long run? Mark Musick, a former chairman of NAEP's governing board, told the Times, "If there's some wild difference then they should try to figure out why that difference exists."

Middle and High Lows

It should come as no surprise that while elementary achievement is the big focus under No Child Left Behind, student achievement in math and reading lags in the middle and high-school grades, according to a recent report by The Education Trust.

Some educators say the law focuses on increased testing in grades 3 through 8. And more elementary schools receive Title I funds and are more directly affected by the law's resources and accountability provisions. So elementary schools are making modest gains, the report, Stalled in Secondary: A Look at Student Achievement Since the No Child Left Behind Act, notes.

"But for far too long, we've been operating on this notion that education is like inoculation--that if we get it right for kids in those early years, we can prevent later school failure," says Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust. "Experience tells us this assumption is wrong."

Some predict there will be more policy makers and legislators pushing for better high school performance. But Kathy Christie, vice president for Education Commission of the States Clearinghouse research and information arm, says educators can't address high schools until they start tackling middle schools.

"They are the feeder schools," she says. "If kids are unprepared for high school then that needs to be addressed."

While parents claim middle school programs are not tough enough, middle school staff disagree. "But when you look at where performance levels off or even declines, it's quite often at that [middle] level," Christie says.

If schools can figure out the sticky issue of having all its secondary teachers highly qualified in all subjects they teach, which is required under NCLB, it will help with student performance, Christie says.

She also points to Virginia as an example for improvement. Gov. Mark Warner, past chairman of ECS and current chairman of the National Governors Association, created a Project Graduation initiative last year that helps students meet requirements for a high school diploma through statewide access to an online tutorial for seniors who have yet to pass the Standards of Learning English reading test.

Solid Foundation = Strong Standards

There's some good news and some bad news.

Three years into the No Child Left Behind era, English and reading standards in early grades have been strengthened in many states. Math standards in most states remain vague and too easy, according to a recent report.

Results of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's report, The State of the State Standards 2005: Math and English, examines the 50 states' academic expectations and spells out suitable recommendations to improve children's skills and knowledge.

Eleven states failed the foundation's math standards and four states failed in English. Most states' K-12 standards received C or D grades. "State academic standards are the foundation of NCLB," says foundation President Chester Finn Jr. "If that foundation is sturdy, NCLB's ambitious reforms may succeed; if it's weak ... reforms will be shaky and could prove worse than none at all."