Harvard Educational Review
  1. NCLB Meets School Realities

    Lessons from the Field

    By Gail Sunderman, James S. Kim, and Gary Orfield

    Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2005. 148 pp. $29.95.

    As U.S. public schools experience one of the largest school reform mandates in decades through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, data on how the impact of these reforms is being felt is finally available through a series of analyses in NCLB Meets School Realities: Lessons from the Field by Gail L. Sunderman, James S. Kim, and Gary Orfield. The book’s focus is not an analysis of successful implementation of the law, but a deeper look at what the major changes in the accountability law mean for state and local policymakers and educators. Although relatively short in length (148 pages), the book provides a detailed review of current educational policy history as it relates to accountability. The book offers new data from the first two years of NCLB implementation (2002–03 and 2003–04) in six states and ten major districts in the United States, as well as some alarming implications for the parties most affected by particular accountability provisions — students, families, teachers, administrators, local and state lawmakers. A premise of the book is that when NCLB was enacted, educational groups and researchers were “largely excluded from the process of designing the law” (p. x).

    NCLB Meets School Realities provides a well-thought-out research design for understanding how current accountability affects multiple parties involved in educational policy. Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Virginia are the six states chosen for their geographic, political, and racial diversity, as well as for their position in the school reform process as it relates to NCLB requirements. Chapters focus on the historical evolution of governmental relationships as they relate to educational accountability policy, the role and consequences of labeling a school as meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP), teacher perspectives on the accountability provisions, and a review of the potential inclusion of an additional accountability mechanism — graduation rates — to combat incentives to alter test score numbers to reach federal goals.

    In chapter 1, “When Federal Power Is Expanded,” the authors provide a political and historical analysis of the shift of governmental powers in education, focusing on the transformation of the federal role in educational and minority rights. The authors argue that NCLB represents a major change in previous federal-state relationships whereby the federal government is now imposing one model of accountability (test scores) across all states without establishing a collaborative relationship with state and local systems necessary for successful implementation of the legislation.

    Chapter 2 focuses on how the six select states developed their accountability plans to improve student performance, as well as the major differences between states in their respective accountability plan structures. The chapter details the real challenges districts face meeting the requirements of both federal and state accountability systems and shows how the AYP requirements may disadvantage districts and schools serving low-income and minority students.

    Chapters 3 and 4 provide extremely useful analyses of the two major choice provisions in NCLB: the transfer option and access to supplemental educational services. Chapter 3 focuses on the schooling options available to minority and low-income students under NCLB and how districts have translated this federal provision into working policy. The authors provide evidence that few families exercised the transfer option across ten major districts. Chapter 4 describes the supplemental educational services provision of NCLB as a market mechanism that assumes that competition will expand educational opportunities of students and create incentives for low-performing schools to improve instruction. The authors also provide data on student eligibility for supplemental services according to race to highlight the potential impact these services may have on underserved populations. They show severe discrepancies between eligibility and participation, with no research findings indicating that supplemental services have any impact on student achievement to date.

    In chapter 5, “Listening to Teachers,” the authors present fascinating insights from survey data of teacher perspectives on NCLB provisions. Among other questions, the survey asks teachers how they perceive the law and its effect on their schools, instructional practices, and curriculum. These rare survey findings indicate that while teachers support the notion of standards for student achievement, they question the efficacy of the NCLB accountability reforms. When it comes to what is needed to improve their schools, teachers overwhelmingly reject the transfer option to improve student achievement, although they are much more open about the potential effect of supplemental services.
    Chapter 6, by Daniel J. Losen, considers an unintended consequence of NCLB’s harsh sanctions for schools that fail to meet adequate yearly progress requirements: the worsening of the national high school graduation rate crisis. Losen argues that adding “graduation rate accountability” as a measure of achievement may act as a counterpressure against incentives for districts to exclude low-scoring students or claim false test score gains.

    NCLB Meets School Realities is one of a few empirical, multistate examinations of the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 with a focus on how the law affects minority and low-income students. The authors present appropriate political and historical context, original data and analyses, and well-researched recommendations on how to improve public schools. Each chapter is a scholarly and critical presentation of how accountability policy intentions and practices have played out in some of the nation’s largest and most diverse districts. In sum, NCLB Meets School Realities is a necessary foundational read for every consumer and practitioner of public schools who is truly interested in understanding the political process of U.S. education reform.

    S. M. F.
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    Book Notes

    Teaching Social Studies That Matters
    By Steven J. Thornton

    Becoming Adult Learners
    By Eleanor Drago-Severson

    NCLB Meets School Realities
    By Gail Sunderman, James S. Kim, and Gary Orfield

    Compelled to Excel
    By Vivian S. Louie

    Inequality in America
    By Benjamin M. Friedman