My three children have never known anything but No Child Left Behind — the 2002 legislation that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
NCLB was supposed to expose where schools were failing traditionally underserved groups and ensure that all children would score proficient or advanced on math and reading tests by the year 2014. NCLB relied heavily on standardized test results, threatening schools with being closed, taken over, suffering financial sanctions for low scores, or some combination. This led to the narrowing of school curriculums — especially in our nation’s poorest districts — primarily to only two subjects: math and reading.
After pressure from citizens clamoring for a new approach, each chamber of Congress passed its own version and both are improvements over NCLB’s “test and punish” design. Both would continue mandated annual federal testing in kindergarten through eighth grade, but without federal sanctions for low scores. Under the Senate bill, states would have the responsibility to decide what to do about schools deemed to be failing. As a School District of Lancaster parent, I feel that the Senate bill creates a much needed opportunity to focus on the specific needs of our diverse student population, including students from dozens of countries, a high percentage of special needs children, and children in poverty. Such children would benefit greatly from creative methods of teaching and a broad curriculum — rather than one limited by a focus on teaching to the test.
Many Pennsylvanians, myself included, believe our public schools, students and teachers are more than test results. To get away from the narrowness imposed by NCLB, parents will have to work hard to make an impact both in Harrisburg and in their local school districts. Many Republicans in the state House and Senate remain heavily vested in the corporate reform model — the idea that testing and punishing schools and teachers based solely on state test results is the best way forward. They continue to rely on the false premise that schools, students and teachers can be rated “failing” simply based on test scores. Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile score was created and touted by the Corbett administration as a comprehensive method of rating schools and districts. This rating greatly influences state funding to each local public school district, as well as individual teacher evaluations and public perception of individual school districts. Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a West Lampeter Township Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, recently proposed creating a statewide Achievement School District. Using the School Performance Profile as the measure, the state would take over the bottom 5 percent of Pennsylvania schools.
This proposed takeover movement would replace school districts with charter schools run by for-profit corporations, and has not proven to be a solution in Philadelphia, York and other Pennsylvania communities. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan education research firm Research for Action recently examined the SPP metric and concluded that, “Despite an emphasis on multiple inputs, Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile rating system is overwhelmingly dependent on standardized test scores. This is concerning on two levels. First, standardized tests measure just part of the expectations we hold for students and schools. Second, these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out-of-school factors — raising questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.”
Gov. Tom Wolf supports multiple measures of successful schools and students that are not purely test-based and acknowledge the effects of poverty and environment on a child’s success in school. In a May interview with Newsworks.org, Wolf stated: "Education is a full and holistic process. We’ve reduced it to a bunch of high-stakes tests that don’t seem to me to be tied to the specific, comprehensive skills that we want students to have.”
It is up to us — parents and taxpayers — to make our voices heard. Assuming Congress passes a reauthorization that frees up states from NCLB’s test-and-punish design, Pennsylvania and our local school districts will be directly responsible for ensuring that our most vulnerable students do not fall through the cracks and do receive an excellent education — as was the intent of the 1965 law.
The following are essential to the future of public education:
- Committing to fair and equitable funding for all schools.
- Recognizing the importance of schools that are partnerships between community groups and neighborhood schools and address specific needs of communities.
- Demanding well-rounded curriculums that include strong arts and extracurricular programs.
- Parents can do their part by:
- Volunteering at their local schools.
- Learning about the issues.
- Attending school board meetings.
- Calling and meeting with your elected school board members and officials at the state and federal levels.
- Running for office if those people aren’t serving public education.
The reauthorization of the ESEA gives us a new opportunity to recommit to the centuries-old idea of public education as the pillar of our democratic society. We should all do our part to do so.
Mara Creswell McGrann is a city resident and parent of three children in the School District of Lancaster. The Millersville University graduate and her husband are small-business owners in Lancaster.