Fixing NCLB: One Superintendent's Take

Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway spoke with Governing about his frustrations with the No Child Left Behind and reactions to some proposed solutions.
by | September 22, 2011

The shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have been well documented: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speculated earlier this year that up to 80 percent of the nation's schools would fail to meet the law's requirement of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

This past spring, several state superintendents informed Duncan they would not increase their test score targets to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provision the law requires. This sparked a flurry of discussion about the need for Duncan to issue waivers from such requirements and for Congress to reform the education law altogether.

Last week, four Republican senators announced their solutions to NCLB's problems. They included:

  • eliminating AYP and allow states to develop their own accountability system;
  • improving educator evaluation systems and authorizing a fund in which states and districts compete for ways to provide performance pay;
  • streamlining funding into two separate block grants, allowing states and school districts to fund programs of their choosing;
  • and expanding the number of charter schools.

Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway, one of the early supporters of abandoning the AYP system, spoke to Governing about his frustrations with NCLB and his take on some of the solutions suggested thus far. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the catalyst for your informing Secretary Duncan that you would not be increasing your state's testing targets?

As those targets increased, and we reached a situation where, according to this artificial standard of AYP, all of our schools were failing. That's a meaningless piece of information. If everyone is succeeding or everyone is failing, then clearly the scales are screwed up. So, this progression toward total failure does not give our citizens or our state an accurate picture of our education and our either success or failure. It's meaningless accountability.

It seems to be universally agreed that No Child Left Behind, as it was originally conceived, isn't working, which has resulted in this call for reform. What would you describe as the "fatal flaw" in the law?

I think there would be two pieces. One is that a target for 100 percent proficiency, while it's great political rhetoric, doesn't fit anyone's understanding of the reality of the world. We don't have 100 percent crime prevention. We don't have 100 percent of anything. That's clearly out of sync with anybody's understanding of reality. Secondly, and this is my strong feeling about this kind of law, it has had this tendency across our country to take any lack of student success and pin it on the schools. It has had an enormously detrimental effect on our nation's sense of personal responsibility when it comes to academics. That, if any student fails, it must be the school's fault.

What is your general reaction to some of the proposed solutions to NCLB?

Any time the feds go past states and straight to local school districts, I think that's a mistake. The feds should work with states, not past states. The feds should work with governors. They should work with state legislatures. They should work with chief state schools officers. They should not be working around those people.

I'm also always concerned when I hear the term "block grant." My experience has been that block grant typically also means budget cuts. I know we're in tough times, but let's not engage in this smoke-and-mirrors act of saying, "You'll have half as much money, but it'll seem like more because you'll have flexibility." So, I don't mind a block grant if we'll be honest about what it'll mean. If it will in fact be a block grant with fewer dollars, then let's make that clear, rather than trying to disguise it behind this façade of flexibility.

Then there's competition [regarding performance pay systems]. We've had a set of requirements that ask states to do certain things. But if we're going to have those requirements, it's not appropriate for us to compete to have the support to meet the requirements. It's not that I'm against competitiveness, but I'm against competitiveness when one doesn't receive the money and still has to do the same things.

Finally, it's pretty interesting to me that, at the same time we're working to support charter schools, we're reducing the money available to support charter schools. In the most recent round of budget cutting, there were significant reductions in charter school start-up funds. It's one thing to say it; it's another to support it.

What is your reaction to the idea of eliminating the AYP system and allowing states to develop their own accountability metrics?

I think states have made great progress toward developing their own accountability systems. Most states are headed down that track, anyway, with something that is at least a parallel. But I think there should be some kind of federal standards, particularly for the lowest performing Title I schools. States are where the governing of education most belongs, and when there is some federal funding associated with something, it's probably appropriate for there to be some federal accountability. But the extension of AYP to cover every school has been ludicrous. So, states should be in the lead. Absolutely.

Are there challenges in enacting meaningful reform during difficult financial times for government at all levels? How would you describe them?

We have to move forward. But it is the nature of teaching and learning that it's a human interaction. Technology can support it, and education needs to find ways to be more efficient in using technology. But you do have to recognize that when you cut funds, you cut services. There is a connection between the quality of what we offer and the amount of money that we have. I understand that you can't spend money you don't have. I've operated on balanced budgets my entire career as an administrator. I don't mind when we have to make cuts, but we can't be having the expectation that we can make cuts and expand services and have vastly improving outcomes.

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