Politics & Policy

The Suburban Schools Relief Act of 2007

Leaving kids behind.

The political strategy of George Miller and Buck McKeon, respectively the chairman and top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, has now come into full relief: to get an NCLB reauthorization bill through Congress by appeasing the suburbs. This approach is smart and savvy and sometimes leads to good policies — but may also leave lots and lots of kids behind.

At issue is “discussion draft” of their proposal to update Title I, the massive federal program that currently provides $13 billion to the nation’s schools in return for tough accountability measures. While leaving much of the current program intact, Miller and McKeon would make several important tweaks that would be felt most directly in the country’s leafy suburbs. Surely, this is no accident.

One key recommendation is to “differentiate” between abysmal schools that are failing across the board, and marginal schools that are failing for only one “sub-group” of pupils. On its face, this is appropriate; one of the problems with NCLB is its clumsy, binary, pass/fail grading system. Either schools “make” adequate yearly progress, or they don’t, and if they miss for two years straight they are designated “in need of improvement” whether they miss by a little or miss by a lot. Because of NCLB’s quirky rules, a suburban school with a 90 percent test-passing rate can receive the same label as an inner-city school with a ten-percent passing rate.

That’s not fair, right? Shouldn’t the first school be considered a great success? Well, what if that school is 90 percent middle-class and ten-percent low-income, and all of the middle-class students passed the test while all of the poor kids failed? Do you still think it’s a great school? As I wrote in the New York Times two years ago, one of the major purposes of NCLB was to expose the achievement gap in schools exactly like this one, and press suburban school systems to do something about it.

Nor is this just a hypothetical situation. Consider Palmetto Elementary School in Miami. Its low-income students — about 20 percent of its population — fell short of the state’s proficiency target in mathematics, causing the school to miss AYP under current federal rules. (Under Florida’s pre-existing and parallel accountability system, it received an “A” grade.)

Miller and McKeon would no longer label Palmetto “in need of improvement” because the school as a whole and its other student sub-groups hit their objectives. Instead, it would be called a “priority” school, differentiating it from “high priority” schools across town that would still face serious interventions.

What does it mean that Palmetto would become a “priority”? Not much for its students, who would no longer be eligible, for example, to transfer to higher-performing campuses or gain access to free tutoring at the provider of their choice. The school would face minimal sanctions, reminiscent of pre-NCLB iterations of Title I. And the new label wouldn’t carry as much stigma as the current one does. No doubt that will lead Palmetto’s affluent parents (and home owners) to smile happily even as the school’s low-income population remains on the far shore of the achievement gap.

Politically, this makes short-run sense. One the main reasons NCLB is so controversial is because its impact can be felt in every school system in the country, including those full of middle-class voters. Previous versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB’s official moniker) focused tough-love on failing inner city schools alone. That’s why most of the public never heard of it — and most of the education establishment never went to war over it. (Remember that the NEA is weakest in the cities, where the AFT represents most teachers. Remember, too, that many suburban voters are represented in Congress by Republicans remorseful that they voted for NCLB the first time around.)

To be sure, appealing to the suburbs has created some good policy ideas, too. Middle-class voters are probably most irked by the pressure that NCLB puts on schools to narrow their curricula. (We’re irked too.) The latest PDK/Gallup poll found that over half of respondents believe that “NCLB’s emphasis on English and math reduced the amount of instructional time spent in the local public schools for science, health, social studies, and the arts.”

Miller and McKeon demonstrated praiseworthy creativity in trying to address this unintended consequence. Most significantly, states could include the results of history, science, civics, and writing tests in their school’s AYP determinations. In a chapter for Fordham’s Beyond the Basics volume, Brown University assistant professor Martin West showed that such an approach might be just the ticket. According to federal data, schools in states with history and/or science tests spent significantly more time teaching these subjects than those in states that tested only reading and math. Ironically enough, the answer to the testing backlash is more testing.

Middle-class voters’ fingerprints could be spotted on other parts of the proposal, too. The authors create additional “flexibility” around the testing of disabled and limited English proficient students — two subgroups that have been bugaboos for many a suburban school. And they would allow schools to get credit for taking students from the “proficient” to the “advanced” level — a nod to the (well-founded) concern that schools are tending to ignore their most gifted students.

Some might argue that giving the suburbs something akin to a free pass on NCLB isn’t such a bad thing. After all, the number-one rule for federal policymaking should always be “first, do no harm,” and after five clumsy years of NCLB, limiting Uncle Sam’s damage to the cities might be a step in the right direction. Still, with many black, Hispanic, and low-income families still streaming to the suburbs, wouldn’t it be nice if their schools had to narrow the achievement gap, too? Miller’s and McKeon’s answer seems to be that it would be nice — but not necessary.

— Michael J. Petrilli, who served as a Bush-administration appointee in the U.S. Department of Education from 2001-2005, is vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.


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