It's countdown time in Philadelphia's public schools. Just 21 days remain before the state reading and math tests in March, and the kids and faculty at James G. Blaine Elementary, an all-black, inner-city school that spans pre-K to eighth grade, have been drilling for much of the day. At 2:45 in the afternoon, Rasheed Abdullah, the kinetic lead math teacher, stages what could be called a prep rally with 11 third-graders. The kids, who are at neither the top nor the bottom of their class, have been selected for intensive review--as has a contingent from other grades--because their test scores hold the key to putting the school over the top on the pivotal Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAS). Last year, after a history of failure, the school, under new leadership, managed to meet the federal goal for adequate yearly progress (AYP) on the state tests for the first time. If it does so again, Blaine moves off the dreaded list of failing schools, no longer a target for intensive oversight and sanctions that could include replacing the staff.
Abdullah, who has an easy rapport with students, issues a quick reminder to sign up for "Super Saturday" review classes and then begins his math-athon with a rousing recitation of the school's declaration of education. "We believe that we can learn at high levels," the children chant. "We believe we can reach our learning potential ... We believe that Blaine will become a high-performing institution."
Quite a mouthful for an 8-year-old. And there's more. Abdullah starts pumping his fists as the kids finish with passionate vows.
"I'll never give up!" he shouts.
"I'll never give up!" they echo.
"Even on the PSSA test!"
"Even on the PSSA test!"
"'Cause winners never lose, and I am the best!"
For the next 15 minutes, the kids, divided into teams, compete to win points by solving math problems, with Abdullah acting as a combination game-show host and math coach. There are giggles and cheers and plenty of correct answers, but everyone in the room knows the fate of the school is at stake.
To understand the impact of the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, indelibly rebranded as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), you need to visit a school like Blaine. The astonishingly ambitious law, the Bush Administration's proudest domestic achievement, was crafted with high-poverty, low-achieving schools like this one in mind. NCLB proponents and critics alike agree that the law's greatest accomplishment has been shining an unforgiving spotlight on such languishing schools and demanding that they do better. At Blaine, for instance, only 13% of fifth- and eighth-graders were reading on grade level or above in 2004--a number that has since risen to 36%.
Under the law's most visible stipulation, states must test public school students in reading and math every year from third through eighth grade, plus once in high school, and reveal the results for each school or face a loss of federal funds. Just as critical, schools must break out test results for certain groups: blacks, Hispanics, English-language learners, learning-disabled students. This has embarrassed many a top suburban school where high-flying majorities have masked the low achievement of minorities and special-ed students. The law insists--with consequences for failure--that schools make annual progress toward closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white, and bring all students to grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014, ending what the President memorably called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Ask almost any school administrator, education policymaker or think-tank wonk about NCLB, and you're guaranteed to get at least one sunny metaphor about how the law opened a window, raised a curtain or otherwise illuminated the plight of the nation's underserved kids. This is NCLB'S biggest achievement and the best reason for Congress to reauthorize the law. "At the end of the day, who can argue with holding schools accountable for all children?" asks Paul Vallas, outgoing chief executive of Philadelphia's schools and incoming head of the New Orleans school district. "Who can argue with not tolerating failing schools or with giving poor kids the kinds of choices that wealthier kids have? It's a civil rights issue."
There's plenty of argument, however, about how the law seeks to achieve these goals. NCLB takes the Federal Government--which contributes only 9¢ of every $1 spent on U.S. schools--where it's never gone before: telling the states how to measure school success, specifying interventions for failure, mandating qualifications for teachers and even telling the nation how to teach reading. This year, as the five-year-old law comes up for debate, an unforgiving spotlight will be focused on its impact thus far, including its numerous unintended consequences. Many teachers are enraged by the law's reliance on high-stakes exams that lead schools like Blaine to focus relentlessly on boosting scores rather than pursuing a broader vision of education. More than 30,000 educators and concerned citizens have signed an online petition calling for the repeal of the 1,100-page statute. Some offer comments like this one from a former superintendent of schools in Ohio: "NCLB is like a Russian novel. That's because it's long, it's complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed."
Whether NCLB is achieving its objectives remains an open question. Fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rose sharply from 1999 to 2004, but most of the gains occurred before the law took effect. The achievement gap appears to be narrowing in some spots--fourth- and eighth-grade math scores for minorities, for instance--but not others. The gap between white and black eighth-graders has widened slightly in math, for example. Gains for eighth-graders in general remain stubbornly elusive.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has been advising the President on education since his days as Texas Governor, notes that the law went into full effect only last year and that more time is needed for it to work. Still, she and the Administration have proposed a large number of adjustments to a law she once compared to Ivory soap, saying "It's 99.9% pure." "We wrote the very best bill we could five years ago," Spellings told TIME, "but we've learned from our experiences." Meanwhile, members of Congress have their own fix-it agendas, as do state education officials and, of course, the teachers unions.
Much of the debate over renewing the law is focused on five areas of controversy:
•AYP on reading and math tests: Is it the right tool for measuring learning and raising achievement in the nation's schools?