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No wonder so many states have watered down their expectations. An analysis by researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, found that the quality of educational standards--which are detailed, grade-by-grade, subject-by-subject learning goals--declined in 30 states from 2000 to 2006. That includes the four states--Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma--said to be on track for 2014. Overall, only three states earned an A from Fordham on curriculum standards--which are also the basis for state tests; 37 rated C-- or below.
In European countries, for example, such weak and uneven expectations aren't a problem because most have a uniform national curriculum and national tests. But that approach has been politically unacceptable in the U.S., where schools are largely funded and controlled at the state and local levels. Besides, says Spellings, "do you really want me sitting in Washington working on how we teach evolution or creationism? I don't want to!"
Her department has instead proposed a new requirement that every school, in addition to publishing its results on state tests, provide parents with the statewide scores on NAEP. The idea is that parents would complain if the state falls too far behind the national standard. It's a sensible start, but few experts think it will be enough to ensure high standards in all the nation's schools.
TOO MUCH READING AND MATH?
Sinking state standards are not the only unintended consequence of NCLB. Because the law holds schools accountable only in reading and math, there's growing evidence that schools are giving short shrift to other subjects. In a survey of 300 school districts conducted by the Center on Education Policy, 71% of local administrators admitted that this was the case in their elementary schools. Martin West of Brown University found that, on average, from 1999 to 2004, reading instruction gained 40 min. a week, while social studies and science lost about 17 min. and 23 min, respectively.
But the decline of science and social studies is often much steeper in schools struggling to end a record of failure. At Arizona Desert Elementary in San Luis, Ariz., students spend three hours of their 6 1/2-hr. day on literacy and 90 min. on arithmetic. Science is no longer taught as a stand-alone subject. "We had to find ways to embed it within the content of reading, writing and math," says principal Rafael Sanchez, with some regret. Social studies is handled the same way. The payoff for this laser-like attention to reading and math: the school went from failing in 2004 to making AYP and earning a high-flying "performing plus" designation by the Arizona department of education last year.
But reading about science isn't the same as incubating chick eggs and watching them hatch. And cutting out field trips to Civil War sites and museums to drill social studies vocabulary words is not the way to build a love of history. Hands-on activities are, for many kids, the best part of school, the part that keeps them engaged. The scope of education isn't supposed to be based on what's tested; it's the other way around, says P. David Pearson, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, graduate school of education. "Never send a test out to do a curriculum's job," he says.
FIXING FAILING SCHOOLS
As evidence that NCLB is working, fans of the law love to point to schools that have reversed a long record of failure. Not far from Blaine, in a crime-infested part of town, sits M. Hall Stanton Elementary, everybody's favorite Philadelphia story. In 2002, only 12% of Stanton's fifth-graders were reading at grade level, and the third- and fourth-graders were engaged in what teachers called "gang wars." By 2006, 70% of fifth-graders were proficient readers, and the school was a model of decorum and learning, hitting its AYP goals three years in a row without sacrificing art, music or social studies--an achievement that has earned it national coverage and a visit from Spellings. Today the place pulses with purpose: hallways are bursting with murals, math games and word challenges, as if every square inch of the school were devoted to instruction.
But it's hard to say how much of the transformation can be attributed to NCLB. Much is due to changes made to the curriculum in Philadelphia and even more to Stanton's dynamo principal, Barbara Adderley. Certainly, she is a big fan of testing and accountability. She holds grade-level meetings with teachers in a room with two long assessment walls, which display the latest test results for every student. The walls show, at a glance, who's making progress and who isn't, and if it's the latter, Adderley and her team have a million creative ideas on what to do about it.
No one likes to talk much about the fate of failing schools that continue to founder. Under NCLB, such schools face escalating interventions. If they miss AYP two years in a row, they must offer students a chance to transfer out. After three years, they must provide tutoring services. After five years of failure, the law says the school must be restructured, which means replacing the staff, converting to a charter school, having the state or a private company take the reins or some other intervention.
None of these remedies are working very well. In the 2003-04 school year, only 17% of the 1.4 million students who were eligible for tutoring got assistance. Of the 3.9 million eligible to transfer out of failing schools in 2004-05, only about 1% did so. In many cities there just aren't enough good schools to go around. In the Baltimore school system, for example, says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, "the vast majority aren't schools where anyone who has a choice would want to send their kid."
And no one knows what to do about the 2,000 U.S. schools that have failed to make AYP five years in a row. "Research shows that the path most often chosen is 'other,'" which often means minor tinkering, says Kati Haycock, director of the nonprofit Education Trust. But school districts say the more radical federal options aren't always feasible or affordable. Nor is it clear that turning a school over to the state or making it a charter will raise its performance. "None of these remedies have any basis in reality or research," says Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University.