With 11 California school districts currently suing state authorities over the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 legislation has become a lightning rod in the debate over how to improve public education. The act sets bold goals for improving student achievement, but are those goals achievable?
The results are not yet in. But for one critical category of students, English language learners or ELLs, the law is clearly having a positive impact.
My organization, the Lexington Institute, has just completed the first comprehensive study analyzing the progress individual states are making toward meeting the ELL requirements of No Child Left Behind. Our study found that NCLB – while itself still a work in progress – is making a substantial difference in the education of English learners at the classroom level.
Specifically, we compared what the states with the largest populations of English learners have done to comply with NCLB, and how successful those changes have been. We found that NCLB is already leading to unprecedented improvements in how ELL students are taught in classrooms around the nation.
In measuring accountability for student academic progress, No Child Left Behind requires schools to show adequate results for all students, and also for each of a number of subgroups broken down by such factors as students’ sex, ethnicity and income level. In addition, there is another subgroup for students with limited English proficiency, which is arguably the most controversial category.
If there’s no improvement in the performance of each subgroup over a period of time, then schools risk losing substantial federal dollars. In other words, to hold educators accountable, NCLB took the historic step of linking large increases in federal education funding to requirements that schools produce adequate, or at least improving, student academic achievement in each subgroup.
As with many broad-based reform plans, aspects of NCLB certainly have not been immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. But the strong opposition from much of the education establishment and the teacher unions to the tough accountability requirements is misguided – especially when it comes to teaching immigrant students.
We found that most states do a significantly better job measuring English fluency and tracking students’ progress toward fluency as a result of NCLB. Further, it appears that students learning English in federally funded English instruction programs are now making significantly more progress than before NCLB was passed.
In some ways, California already has a big head start on most states. As the first state to adopt a single statewide English proficiency test, California is better positioned to meet NCLB requirements.
Unfortunately, many of those who would alter No Child Left Behind are in danger of making the legislation much worse in ways that would be especially harmful to the neediest children. Those who have proposed changing NCLB for the most part follow the lead of the National Education Association, which would completely remove English language learners from the existing accountability system.
This would be an educational disaster for a number of reasons. It would create incentives for schools to segregate English-learning children into “nonaccountable” categories and simply leave them there, outside the pale of English competence, until they eventually drop out of school.
Our English-learning students deserve better, and as the size of that population continues to grow dramatically in many school districts, NCLB has shown that it is starting to make a real difference for them. This is no time to reverse direction, just because entrenched interests are unwilling or unable to produce results.
Don Soifer is an education analyst with the Lexington Institute, which recently published “Making Uneven Strides: State Standards for Achieving English Language Proficiency Under the No Child Left Behind Act.”
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