NCLB Falls Short of Helping Parents

(Note: This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Aug. 19, 2007 issue of the Detroit Free Press.)

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has shaken up the status quo, but it has failed to provide useful information and options to parents. Despite some successes, NCLB has ultimately demonstrated that the federal role in education should be reduced so that parents — not members of the U.S. Congress or a distant Department of Education — can engage in their children’s education in the most basic way: by choosing where they go to school.

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NCLB has caused media, school employee unions and school bureaucracies at the local and state levels to wake up from the decades-long belief that piling on resources and toying with regulations will improve public schools. With NCLB’s nearly relentless focus on reporting test scores, it is more suspect now to focus only on school inputs — more dollars, more goals, more teachers, more credentials, more technology — without also focusing on results.

However, NCLB has failed education consumers — parents — because Michigan, like other states, has not enforced the law’s basic accountability requirements by providing clear information and straightforward implementation.

The starting point for accountability under the NCLB regime is parents. If their children’s school fails to meet federal standards, parents under a certain income level are able to redirect a portion of the school’s federal funding for transportation to an acceptable public school or for a tutoring program.

Armed with information about schools’ performance and making choices from a lamentably limited menu, parents could cause some schools to lose some of their federal dollars. This could have short- and long-term consequences, providing an immediate escape for children in failing schools and an eventual stimulus for schools to be responsive to parents’ wishes.

Parents have faced challenges, however, with two basic components of the law’s implementation at the state level: getting useful performance information and using it to escape failing schools.

Useful information has been difficult to come by because states can decide the technicalities of determining whether schools meet NCLB standards. For Michigan, as for other states, such decisions are the result of complex statistical maneuvering. These maneuvers include allowing students to be considered "proficient" if their test scores fall within a range of scores near the proficiency target; averaging three years of scores if a school fails to meet standards based on calculations first using one and then two years of data; and giving schools a passing score for improving over the previous year, even if they miss their proficiency target.

Parents can learn about these and other statistical techniques from a Michigan Department of Education manual, if they can slog through the document’s techno-speak. Armed with these data and explanations, parents are supposed to be able to assess whether these determinations allow them to use federal funds to change schools or receive tutoring.

If parents can determine that they qualify, they still must decipher their options described in the long, complex, positively spun letters sent by many districts, and meet a deadline that is often only a few weeks away. Should parents miss the deadline, the monies are reallocated to other district programs.

Given these considerable hurdles, it’s not surprising that in 2004-2005, only 14 percent of children eligible for tutoring actually received services, while 0.5 percent actually transferred to an acceptable public school that year. There wasn’t much improvement the following year when about 12 percent of eligible students received tutoring and about 5 percent transferred to another school.

The accountability aspects of NCLB are laudable, but the failure to provide usable data and real options to parents should lead us to reduce the role of those on the Potomac and increase the role of parents in the Great Lake State.


Dr. Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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