Citizens for Effective Schools

For "No Child Left Behind" to Work, New Federal Education Role Needed

by Gary M. Ratner
Washington Council of Lawyers News Forum
November 2002

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Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc. (CES) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization of lawyers and other citizens committed to achieving the goal of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" - academic competence for all students, including the poor and racial/ethnic minorities. President Bush recognizes, however, that the Act, alone, is insufficient to accomplish its goal. As the President avowed in his State of the Union Address, only weeks after signing the Act: "We must upgrade our teacher colleges and teacher training and launch a major recruiting drive with a great goal for America: a quality teacher in every classroom."

The chasm between the Act's goals and current student achievement is huge. Projecting from a National Assessment of Educational Progress sample, about 70 percent of the 47 million public school students are below "Proficient," i.e., grade level, in reading and 75 percent below it in math. Among the approximately 8 million black and 7 million Hispanic students, about 90 percent lack "Proficiency" in reading and math. About 8 million poor students (50 percent) lack even "Basic," i.e., rudimentary, skills at their respective grade levels.

The need for major improvements in teacher quality arises now because, through the Act and the National Education Goals established in 1990, America has immensely raised its historical education goal, from providing an academically rigorous education only to the minority of students destined for college - the "academic" track - to providing such high level education to virtually all children. However, America has not correspondingly increased the capacity of "general" and "vocational" track teachers to teach at that level.

As the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found: "Most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning demanded by the new reforms - not because they do not want to, burt because they do not know how, and the systems in which they work do not support them in doing so." The biggest obstacle to the President's goal is that most teachers have not historically been expected to, and cannot now, effectively teach a challenging, academic curriculum at their grade level.

Over the last decade, States have responded to the new education goal by creating the "standards, assessments and accountability" movement. They have mandated academic performance standards for all students, state tests to assess whether students satisfy the standards, and sanctions for failure to pass the test, such as publishing school ratings, transferring staff, and denying high school graduation. That movement and the Act conceive the fundamental obstacle to widespread proficiency as insufficient pressure on teachers and students. As a result, the accountability movement pressures teachers to teach, and students to learn, a narrow curriculum (and test-taking techniques) so students can "pass" new state tests, usually far below "Proficiency."

The "accountabiluty movement" is totally inadequate to reach the Act's goal. The percentage of "proficient" public students nationwide (though increased modestly over the last decade) remains extremely low: only 16 to 25 percent of students are proficient in math and only 29 to 39 percent are proficient in reading. Even Texas, accountability's flagship, increased proficiency only 5 percent in reading from 1992 to 1998, with 70 percent of Texas' public school students still below "Proficient." While math proficiency increased by 12 percent at grade 4 and 6 percent at grade 8 from 1992-2000, about 75 percent of Texas public students are still not "Proficient" in math.

What is needed is a fundamental change in national education strategy to match the new education mission by enabling all teachers nationwide to effectively teach diverse students a rigorous curriculum and enabling families to effectively support their children's high achievement. Specifically, most of our 3 million existing teachers need intensive training in subject matter knowledge, individualized mentoring in teaching skills,and preparation time with colleagues. Traditional professional development workshops, unrelated to immediately improving classroom teaching, should be abolished, except for teachers of demonstrated competence. Tens of thousands of principals and superintendents must be trained how to lead their teachers, parents, and communities to vastly raise their expectations and student learning. Teachers and administrators unable or unwilling, after training, to perform effectively must be replaced with capable personnel.

Education colleges need to supplant their widespread 10-12 week student teaching programs with a minimum 30 week, academically integrated and closely supervised clinical experience, and arts and sciences departments need to provide all teacher candidates solid grounding in their academic subjects, so all future teachers can teach competently upon graduation. A comprehensive nationwide program, including financlial and mentoring incentives, needs to be instituted to recruit and retain only academically skilled teachers and administrators for all public schools, especially in poor urban and rural areas.

Finally, we need to greatly expand federal comprehensive literacy and other public and private programs to educate parents/guardians about the specific content standards their children must meet and what they should do at home and at school to support high level student learning. We need to provide families with adult education and parenting skills to enable them to motivate and assist their children to learn. And for all students without families able to provide such support, surrogate adult mentors and tutors need to be offered through programs like Big Brothers-Big Sisters.

Only the federal government has the legal and financial capability to institute these systemic changes nationwide. Enabling all public school teachers and administrators to be well trained and competent to meet the new mission and empowering all families/surrogates to provide effective support for high student achievement should become the new, central federal role in schooling. States and localities should continue to make policy on curriculum content, discipline, facilities, and similar matters and administer the schools day-to-day.

CES' immediate task is to educate the media, politicians, and the public at large that to actually attain the goal of the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," federal, state, and local governments need to make implementing these changes the unwavering, long-term, principal focus of school reform. CES, however, needs your help in getting the message out to friends, colleagues, legislators and departments of education, business leaders, and other key groups of citizens nationwide. Please visit our website at for more information about CES, its mission, and how to join. Please also feel free to call, write, or email me to talk about how you could contribute to CES' work to educate and mobilize the public and to make systemic changes needed to raise virtually all students to academic competence.

Gary Ratner has been a member of the Washington Council of Lawyers for a number of years. He began research and writing on school reform issues thirty years ago as a legal services lawyer, concerned that poor and minority children in Boston public schools were not learning basic skills and were falling further below grade level every year they stayed in school. In 1985, he published in the Texas Law Review the leading article seeking to establish that urban public schools have a legal duty to effectively educate all children in basic skills, focusing on the need for failing schools to adopt the characteristics of effective schools.

Prior to becoming Executive Director of CES, Mr. Ratner worked as Associate General Counsel for Litigation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Deputy Executive Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, General Counsel and Director of Litigation of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and Associate Director for Litigation of Greater Boston Legal Services. He can be reached at (301) 469-8000,, and 8209 Hamilton Spring Ct., Bethesda, MD 20817.

© 2008 Citizens for Effective Schools