The Red Headed Step Children of NCLB

7 Feb

When NCLB was first passed by a bipartisan majority vote, few had a full understanding of the impact it would have on education.  The earlier reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act had many of the same provisions but one thing NCLB had that the earlier ESEA didn’t have was teeth.  Namely it was deeply hooked into funding as well as sanctions imposed on schools failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  The folks at AFT’s NCLBlog correctly called this the biggest thing to hit education since Sputnik.  Well not entirely correct.  It was the biggest thing to hit education since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1973, which created an entirely new sector of education, namely Special Education.  Now known as the Individuals with Disability Education Act or IDEA, sweeping changes were made in the way that certain students are educated.


NCLB is deeply entwined with IDEA, and there is no avoiding either one for school systems.  When the regulations from NCLB began filtering down, State Superintendents generally were cautiously optimistic about most provisions except one.   There was one provision which threatened to sink the entire boat.  Actually it was one section of one provision.  Up until NCLB, special education had their procedures and regular ed. had theirs.  The fear that Gerald Ford expressed of having two separate, parallel systems of education when he signed it had largely come to pass, despite movements towards inclusion and mainstreaming.  IDEA ’97 did add more emphasis on Least Restrictive Environments (LRE) but it wasn’t until NCLB that this would come to a head.  In all 50 states, the respective Superindents fired off an objection to one part of one provision.  Namely the one on subgroups.


NCLB requires that all schools meet AYP.  This alone was not alarming until the education leaders saw that EACH subgroup had to also make AYP.  Minority subgroups, while possibly troublesome were doable.  Those students getting free and reduced lunches?  Doable.  But when they saw that special education students were in their own subgroup, this turned any hairs on an administrator’s hair white that hadn’t already fallen out or gotten pulled out.  But it got worse.


In order to make AYP, something like 97% of the students in each subgroup had to take the test.  If a school had 4 Asian students and one was out the day of the test that could cost the school its goal of AYP.  In the old days, schools encouraged special ed. students to stay home the day of the test or simply excluded their scores from the average when reporting test scores to the media or to a state’s report card.  Schools that included scores from special ed. students always had lower test averages.  So in the high stakes game of influencing real estate values, this encouraged schools to cheat.  Those that didn’t were unfairly penalized for being honest.


NCLB sought to correct this by singling out special ed. students as their own subgroup.  Now administrators were caught in a bit of a bind.  Each year, special education students are counted three times in FTE counts.  These FTE counts influence how much federal funding a school receives.  This is based upon the type and number of services each special ed. student receives.  While the feds have never even come close to their pledge of funding 40% of special education, the money is still significant.  Like regular education is now discovering with an under funded NCLB, every dime counts even when it isn’t near enough.


If a school system undercounts their special ed. students, they lose that FTE money.  BUT, now those students MUST be counted towards AYP!  Out of all the provisions of NCLB, this one is the most onerous for states.  All 50 states have filed complaints about the special ed. subgroup.  Sp. Ed. went from just being a pain-in-the-posterior, to being a serious issue, threatening to sink the whole outfit.  Pay attention to how schools report their AYP.  More often than not, they will report on making AYP for every subgroup except one.  Yep.  That onerous Sp. Ed. group is holding up the works.  The proverbial poop in the punchbowl.


During reauthorization, look for some serious adjustments to be made in this subgroup.  Perhaps the bar will be lowered.  Not as many students will have to be counted or more will be eligible for alternate assessment.  I’ll talk more about alternate assessment in a later post.  But at the present time, NCLB allows 1% of the special Ed, students to be measured using some sort of alternate assessment as opposed to the regular statewide testing.  That’s just about enough to include all of my students plus a few more moderate students.  Fact is, no one is sure what to do with us.


President Bush recently spoke of an initiative to attract more math and science teachers.  The AFT NCLBlog recently spoke to AFT endorsing the increase of pay for math and science teachers. Everyone is talking about increasing the number of these teachers without talking much about retaining the ones that we have.  And not one word about the largest shortage of teachers in the country: special ed. teachers.  School systems are pulling people off the street in order to put warm bodies in sp. ed. classrooms.  And less than 50% of them last more than 3 years.  Stretch the time out to 5 years, and the attrition rate is even more appalling and ghastly.  I’ve been in Magnolia County for 6 years, and I’m considered an old timer.


I approach NCLB’s ramifications with some measure of wry amusement.  The wonkish blogs don’t want to talk about us.  Administrators don’t want to deal with us.  G.W. Bush doesn’t want to talk about us.  The teacher unions have moved on to bigger and better topics related to NCLB.  Those of us in the Special Ed. community (parents, students and teachers) represent a problem.  We’re probably destined to be dealt with by powers-that-be by being put off to the side…again.  Right now, under NCLB, we count.  We matter.  But the opportunity to do something great is being squandered.  Precise, data-driven teaching methods can benefit ALL students.  Methods and techniques that reach the slowest learners also pay great dividends for those in the fattest part of the bell curve. 


I admire the intent of NCLB.  It seems tailor-made for kids like ours.  After all, a good number of kids who end up being left behind end up in special education.  Regular ed. teachers grouse about the lack of input they had in crafting this legislation.  But Sp. Ed. teachers had even less, even though it is OUR kids who are the ones bringing up the tail-end.  Our kids are the ones dragging down the whole system, keeping the rest of the schools from reaching their precious AYP.


We need to talk more about this.  I appreciate AFT’s NCLBlog and their more conservative wonkish counterparts in attempting some real, meaningful dialogue concerning this issue.  But, like NCLB itself, these are falling short and getting bogged down in some pretty childish exchanges.  I’ll be happy to help extend their well-developed ideas and thoughts when and if they decide to start having some.



3 Responses to “The Red Headed Step Children of NCLB”

  1. Dick February 7, 2006 at 3:28 pm #

    Tapping on the mic….
    Testing 1,2,3…
    Is this thing on?

  2. John February 7, 2006 at 9:13 pm #

    Yes, it’s on. We can hear you.

    I enjoyed reading your post. The education blogs I find most interesting are those written by teachers. Still, I hope Michele and I can find some interesting things to say, too.

    We look forward to hearing from you again in our comments, and we were considering a post on special education even before seeing what you’ve written here. Don’t give up on us yet.

  3. Dick February 8, 2006 at 3:36 am #

    I look forward to reading what you have to say about it, John! I think ciculating posts, themes and ideas amongst bloggers is a great way to expand and extend knowledge and insight on the issues.

    I look forward to commenting more, and will when I’m sufficiently provoked, for good or ill!


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