Amid NCLB Negativism, Bright Spots Appear

Published December 1, 2003

For the second year in a row, thousands of American schoolchildren are failing to receive the benefits of the limited educational choice to which they are entitled under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001.

Newspapers from coast to coast have reported the consternation of public educators upon finding their schools had flunked NCLB tests of adequate yearly progress (AYP) and their less-than-enthusiastic efforts to help affected parents exercise their rights to public-school choice or paid private tutoring for their children.

In some instances, press accounts blamed public school administrations for not fully informing low-income parents of their options. In others, reporters noted the right to transfer to a better-performing public school meant little because of the shortage of better-performing public schools and/or those with room to accommodate transfers.

Agreement was widespread as to the toothlessness of the NCLB provision urging systems with failing schools to form partnerships with adjacent school systems allowing students to transfer across district boundaries. Resistance from potential recipient districts—usually located in suburbia—is stout. Washington declined to mandate interdistrict public-school choice; moreover, Congressional Democrats insisted President George W. Bush take the most potent form of choice—private-school vouchers—off the table.

Private Tutoring Option Ignored

Letting parents use a portion of federal Title I aid to purchase private tutoring is potentially the most valuable option presented by NCLB when schools fail to make adequate progress in student math and reading achievement for two years running. But whole-hearted compliance is far from universal.

In New York City, little more than 30,000 of 243,000 eligible students requested free tutoring last year, when it first became available, and the New York Times reported signups were running even lower this fall. Tutoring companies and advocates for children blamed school officials for ineffective communication with needy families and unnecessarily tight deadlines for enrollment.

In Chicago, almost nine of every 10 eligible Chicago parents didn’t apply for the tutoring and, as the school year began, the city’s public school officials were pondering how to spend $20 million in federal money that would have gone to the parents.

“The bureaucracy has bungled this process, and now they are trying to shift the blame to parents,” Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, told a Chicago Sun-Times education reporter. “The process [was] confusing and discouraging.”

Some Bright Spots Appear

Nevertheless, bright spots have appeared in communities where education leaders treated NCLB requirements as an opportunity to help parents rather than a reason to hide from them. And by their example, others may eventually be led.

One was Philadelphia, where schools chief executive officer Paul Vallas was exploring possible cooperative arrangements with Catholic schools that would enable children to transfer from some of the city’s low-performing schools.

Vallas, who runs a school system engaged in the nation’s largest venture in school privatization, recently asked suburban Philadelphia districts and area Catholic schools if they would be willing to accept some transferring students exercising their NCLB rights. The suburban systems flatly said no, but the Catholic schools were receptive.

“The mandate from the federal government was to seek out and expand school choice options by approaching other districts, both public and private,” said Vallas. “The Archdiocese [of Philadelphia] is another school system in the city.”

Some creative possibilities under consideration are public school use of parochial facilities during off-hours or exchange programs in which Catholic students could take part in some advanced programs in district schools.

Another example of a can-do attitude came from Nashville, where the principal of Kirkpatrick Elementary School, Kimberly Fowler, and her staff literally went the extra mile when their initial bulletins informing parents of the availability of federally funded tutoring elicited scant response.

A six-page packet that went home resulted in fewer than 3 percent of eligible families signing up. A follow-up notice yielded similarly disappointing results, so Fowler and her staffers went door-to-door to students’ homes to personally assist parents in connecting with tutorial services to help their children catch up. As a result, more than 70 percent of Kirkpatrick’s eligible students are being tutored.

Why go to such effort rather than simply grouse about identification under NCLB as a school needing improvement? “My kids are just as smart as everybody else’s, but they come into school a little bit behind, so we just need the extra time,” Fowler told the Chicago Tribune.

Another positive development will come with the launch in January of a Web site that could bridge the NCLB information gap for parents and educators alike. A $50 million public-private partnership will provide free access to disaggregated NCLB test results and other data from each state so that it will be possible to monitor the progress—or lack thereof—of each school and measure it against comparable schools.

The Web site will be the fruit of collaboration among the Broad Foundation, Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, the U.S. Department of Education, and Just for the Kids, a Texas-based research group.

Among other things, the database will enable users to judge how far short or how far ahead any school is toward the goal of all children achieving at an acceptable academic standard by 2014. That knowledge could assist parents and educators in making informed decisions on how to enhance students’ opportunities to succeed.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Information about the school reform efforts of the Broad Foundation is available online at

Information on the Just for the Kids organization is available from

The July 2003 report, “Raising Achievement with No Child Left Behind: S&P Tools for Schools,” is available from the Standard & Poor’s Web site at