Tuesday, February 14, 2006

NCLB Study

Yahoo is plugging a story titled: "Harvard study blasts Bush education policy." Here's how the story begins:
President George W. Bush's signature education policy has in some cases benefited white middle-class children over blacks and other minorities in poorer regions, a Harvard University study showed on Tuesday.

Political compromises forged between some states and the federal government has allowed schools in some predominantly white districts to dodge penalties faced by regions with larger ethnic minority populations, the study said.
Wow. Benefits to white middle-class children vs. penalties for blacks and other minorities.

But what benefits? And what penalties? Read on:
Under No Child Left Behind, children in every racial and demographic group in every school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and English each year. Failure to achieve annual progress can lead to sanctions against schools.

Children in poorly performing schools can switch schools if space is available. In extreme cases, schools can be closed.

* * *

Nearly every state has taken some action to amend the law or been granted waivers to provisions in No Child Left Behind, the study said. "The problem with this approach is that it does not affect all schools equally," said Sunderman. "No two states are now subject to the same requirements."

In one example the study cites, states in rural Midwestern regions were granted extensions to deadlines to meet requirements on teacher qualifications that were unavailable to poorer rural regions with greater numbers of black Americans and ethnic minorities in southeast and southwest states.

"The policy is essentially a product of negotiation, of power and discretion, not law," Gary Orfield, director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, said in the report.
For more detail, the full report is available here.

Now, I'm not an expert on NCLB, but I am very much inclined to agree with the premise of the article: That whatever NCLB says, it should be applied equally across the nation. If too many people are unhappy with the law, they should move to get it changed, not seek special and ad hoc exemptions.

But the article's conclusion seems wholly unwarranted to me. If you believe that NCLB's basic methods (i.e., requiring schools to improve test scores, to hire more qualified teachers, etc.) are likely to benefit students, then the fact that "white middle-class" schools get special treatment really boils down to this: The white middle-class schools won't have to do as much to improve and won't have to hire as many qualified teachers, while the minority schools will still be required to demonstrate progress and hire more qualified teachers. At the same time, minority students may be more likely to have the chance to transfer out of failing schools.

The problem is that the article (and the study on which is it based) are begging the question. If NCLB is a horrible law that only harms any student that it affects, then giving white middle-class schools a shortcut is an unfair benefit to those schools and the students. But if NCLB is a decent (albeit flawed) law that ultimately benefits the students who have more qualified teachers, etc., then the white middle-class students are not necessarily being done any favors here. Instead, it would be precisely the minority students who are benefited in that their schools are still being forced to improve teacher quality, etc.



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