Grassroots resistance to NCLB

In this space, Michael Kirst recently provided a useful commentary comparing the time it took to implement the original Title I to the present controversies over implementing the No Child Left Behind act. (To glimpse NCLB's future, look to the past, January 8, 2004) However, he was unable to explain why this reauthorization of Title I, unlike any in the program's long history, has engendered such grassroots resistance. At the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. from 1969 to 1993, I played an active role as an advocate for enforcing the original Title I and later as a strong supporter of reforming the program. In 1969, I co-authored the report, Title I: Is It Helping Poor Children?, that led to the first reforms of the program. Having participated in much of that history, I offer my own explanation for the unprecedented opposition to the current law.

NCLB has grabbed the education community's attention like no previous ESEA reauthorization. It has really upset the status quo in state and local offices and has shaken the complacency of educators and parents about their schools' performance. For the first time, district and school officials are actually being required to take serious and urgent action in return for federal funds. Title I has been around so long that it has come to be seen as an entitlement - a part of the basic foundation program in school districts. In its longevity, Title I has acquired a payroll supporting some people in the same positions for decades. Title I dollars may have been a small part of a district's total budget, but the money was always theirs. An associate superintendent once told me that the reason she liked Title I so much was that she didn't have to do anything to get it. She didn't mean that literally, of course. She meant that the district didn't have to write proposals to compete for grant dollars because the money was allocated by a formula based on the number of resident children from low-income families. Of course, there were fiscal and program rules to follow, and after the reauthorization in 1988 and especially in 1994, Title I began setting expectations for improved student achievement. But the federal policy instruments to achieve this goal were weak, and enforcement was impotent. And the money kept flowing, depending always on the number of poor children, not the actions of schools or school systems.

Now, some tougher requirements have been enacted through NCLB. At the grassroots, districts and schools find these mandates distasteful. They hate having schools branded as needing improvement, as if this is somehow a shameful reflection on their earnest efforts, rather than an opportunity to help struggling students. Educators want credit for growth in student achievement, even if lower-achieving students continue to lag behind. The rule for testing 95 percent of all students is ridiculed as unworkable, instead of being seen as insurance against excluding children from accountability. An Education Week poll found that 84 percent of all teachers rejected the concept that special education students should be expected to meet the same academic standards as their non-disabled peers. Administrators don't want to give up control of their federal dollars to set-asides, to transportation, to external providers of tutoring, or to upgrading the credentials of teachers and aides in Title I schools. All the public exposure and public reporting requirements are alien to some districts and states. For the first time in Title I's history, there is serious talk of giving up the entitlement in order to avoid the federal strings. Notice, however, that most of the opposition to No Child Left Behind comes from politicians and is based on ideology (or a desire for even more money), not from educators dependent on that steady revenue stream.

While critics of the law have dominated media coverage of the law's implementation trail, many thousands of other teachers and administrators at all levels are conscientiously implementing the new requirements. They may find them difficult, impossible, or inconvenient, but they are doing what the law asks. Many educators recognize that for too long, special education students have been held to a lower standard and that average scores disguised huge gaps among groups of students. It may be that there is greater acceptance of the new law at the grassroots than all the public comments of superintendents, state policy makers, union spokesmen, newspaper columnists, ed school critics, and editorial writers would have us believe. Just as the original legislation had to be amended to ensure that funds were not used as general aid or to supplant state and local funds, the present law will undoubtedly require some adjustments to fulfill its purpose. Adjustments, however, should not permit wholesale retreat from implementing the fundamental commitment to educating poor and minority children.

Phyllis McClure is a Washington-based, independent consultant with a 35-year history of advocacy on making Title I an effective federal instrument for securing educational opportunities for minority and poor children. She was a member of Independent Review Panels for National Assessments of Title I from 1990-1993 and 1995-2001.

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