Comprehensive Educational Equity:
A Realistic Agenda For Revising NCLB
Our nation’s stated educational policy under the federal No Child Left Behind Act is to ensure that all of America’s students are provided “a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education” and to close“ the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers.” Many states, in implementing the act and adopting rigorous state academic standards have proclaimed that virtually all children can learn at high levels, if provided the proper resources and supports. What is the proper level of resources and supports? This is the key question that Congress should address in its deliberations on re-authorization of NCLB in 2007.
A potentially fatal flaw of NCLB is its failure to address the severe resource deficiencies that are the root cause of the failure of many schools and school districts to provide all of their students a high-quality education. The extensive evidence compiled during the trial of the CFE litigation in New York and in over two dozen other education adequacy litigations nationwide has made clear that by and large the explanation for poor academic performance, especially in urban and rural schools, is the severe resource deficiencies that plague most of these school systems. The research community overwhelmingly agrees that money, if well spent, will make an enormous positive difference in educational opportunity. All children require essential educational resources. In addition, educationally disadvantaged students require supports that address the range of social, economic, political, and psychological factors that indisputably affect children’s readiness and ability to learn.
In addition, NCLB must ensure rigorous standards. Although NCLB requires each state to adopt “challenging academic content standards,” in academic, the U.S. Department of Education has not defined “rigorous” in any substantive way, and, as a result, state standards vary considerably in rigor and may be too low on average to prepare U.S. students for the global competition they will enter after graduation. A similar problem exists with teacher qualification standards under the Act. While “highly qualified” teachers under NCLB must be state certified, the law allows states to set their own certification standards and to create their own assessments of teacher competence. Certification criteria in many states are inadequate for ensuring that teachers are high quality, and few state teacher-licensing examinations are linked to specific areas of knowledge that students are required to know under state learning standards.
Finally, NCLB Must Focus on Capacity Building for School Improvement. NCLB’s current “accountability” system is rudimentary: it relies on student test scores in a very limited number of subjects, and it imposes sanctions on schools and districts whose students do not meet state-set test score targets. Courts in adequacy cases take a better approach to accountability and school improvement: they are increasingly including provisions for capacity-building reforms as part of their remedies. From the adequacy perspective, it is not enough to establish test score targets and identify low-performing schools; states and districts must ensure the resources and assistance that schools require to build capacity, that is, the capabilities needed to overcome the deficiencies and sustain improvement.#
Michael A. Rebell is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Professor of Law and Educational Practice.