Concerns raised about law replacing No Child Left Behind

One month after Congress approved legislation shifting oversight of student accountability standards from federal to state control, state officials, including those in Pennsylvania, are planning how to establish and measure those new standards.

The end of No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001 and put into effect in 2002, was welcomed by many who objected to its focus on testing and to the complex reporting requirements. The program also did not come close to its goal for 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

But some civil rights and education advocacy groups are concerned that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the former federal statute known as No Child Left Behind, will create an environment that will not require some under-achieving schools to improve.

“We are concerned that without federal oversight that the schools in Pennsylvania can overlook the needs of educationally vulnerable students,” said Cheryl Kleiman, staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center.

The D.C.-based civil rights organization Advancement Project cited the case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 unanimously declared state-sponsored segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“History tells us the federal government is a necessary party in ensuring equity in education,” the organization said in a release shortly after passage of the ESSA. “Without federal interventions segregated schools would have persisted.”

While, the ESSA was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, its exact details won’t be known to states until the voluminous legislation is translated into regulations by the U.S. Department of Education. It takes effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the department “is encouraged by the changes brought about by the ESSA,” and plans to work with stakeholders in the development of Pennsylvania’s assessment plan.  The department is working on a timeline for the plan’s completion.

The NCLB required the reporting of student achievement data that was broken down by subgroups such as minorities, English Language Learners, special education and economically disadvantaged students.

Signed into law in 2002, the NCLB created the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, and required all students to hit proficiency targets that increased each year. Schools with grade levels and student groups that did not hit the annual targets were labeled and required to devise improvement plans. Though it was never acted upon, the threat of the loss of federal funds hung over the heads of states and districts if appropriate actions weren’t taken

The ultimate goal was 100 percent proficiency by 2014. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” “proficiency” rates in 2014 were below 50 percent for every racial and ethnic group, in both reading and math, in both fourth and eighth grade. There were two exceptions: Asian students in all subjects scored 51-64 percent and white students in fourth-grade math scored at 54 percent.

Critics of the NCLB said that it set an unattainable goal, created an excessive focus on annual testing and did not take into account other measures of progress. In order to address those issues, ESSA will require states to take a more comprehensive look at student achievement with less emphasis on testing.

Under the ESSA, states are mandated to create academic plans that will produce students who are college or career ready, without remediation. However, they also are required to intervene only in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools where a third or more of the students fail to graduate and schools with persistent achievement gaps.

Carey Harris, executive director for educational advocacy group A+ Schools said the legislation leaves room for chronically underachieving schools that don’t fall within the bottom 5 percent to “fall through the cracks.”

“Five percent is a very low bar,” she said. “None of the city public schools would even meet that target, yet you have some that have struggled academically for years. I would hope this legislation would get very serious about addressing that, so we’re not looking at Westinghouse, looking at Carrick, looking at [University Prep] in 10 years and saying they’re still no better off.”

Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the education consulting and research group Bellwether Education Partners and former adviser in the policy office of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that about 17,000 schools in the nation that would have been required to come up with meaningful improvement plans under NCLB will now be “off the hook.”

Ms. Reigelman said Gov. Tom Wolf is dedicated to making sure that every Pennsylvania student is college or career ready when they graduate and that he has lobbied for “historic” funding increases to Pennsylvania to work toward that goal.

A holdover from the NCLB included in the ESSA is that student achievement data will still be reported by subgroups. But critics question its value if there is no federal mandate for improvement beyond the bottom 5 percent. However, states can set their own target percentage for improvement, but would receive no federal funding about the bottom 5 percent.

“A lot of that data is available to the public now, although some states and districts are better than others about publicizing it,” said Dwanna Nicole, senior policy advocate for Advancement Project. “Even with all that data, if the school district and state aren’t going to use it to ensure equitable education for young people, then it doesn’t matter.”

Civil rights and educational advocacy leaders say it’s their hope that their organizations can fill the void of federal oversight by holding schools and districts accountable and working with states as those plans are formulated.

That collaboration “should begin now,” Ms. Nicole said.

The groups want to see testing become less of a focus in the measurement formulas. In its place, they want to have other factors incorporated, including the annual academic growth of student groups, school climate, and how students are disciplined. In Pennsylvania, Ms. Reigelman said the governor and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera have had “ongoing meetings with stakeholders to explore alternatives and develop new measures” to make the state’s School Performance Profiles a more effective evaluation tool.

Ron Cowell, executive director of the Education Policy Leadership Center, said the new federal law has been applauded because it gives states far more flexibility than the NCLB, but with that flexibility comes responsibility.

“They need to respond in a way that we don’t lose a sense of responsibility and accountability for how schools are serving particularly kids who are most dependent on public education and historically were not well-served,” Mr. Cowell said.

Like Ms. Reigelman, Mr. Cowell raised funding as an obstacle for those putting together Pennsylvania’s plans. He said to overcome the lack of federal oversight, the state needs an aggressive accountability plan, but that requires adequate and stable funding from federal and state sources.

Mr. Cowell said it will be difficult for the state education department to determine the amount of financial resources it will have in the future, given that the state budget still is not settled and that the parties are in disagreement about the extent of education funding. This is compounded by the fact that education in Pennsylvania is still recovering from the nearly $1 billion reduction in funding in 2011.

In addition, he said, the department, similar to state education departments across the country, has been downsized in staff considerably in the past decade, leaving a smaller staff to carry out the federal mandates.

“When you start out with inadequate resources and no predictability about what available resources will look like year to year in the future, it’s pretty hard to engage in serious planning,” Mr. Cowell said.


The wheels on the bus are late

January 6, 2015 – Philadelphia Daily News – by Ronnie Polaneczky

IN PHILLY, if your child is late to school often enough, you may be hauled into Truancy Court to explain why your kid isn’t in class when he should be.

If only the absences were taken as seriously when the lateness is caused by the Philadelphia School District.

Since September, Monica Klimas’ son Danny Gallagher has been late to Gen. Philip Kearny School countless times. That’s because the bus that picks him up at home in Bridesburg can’t reliably get him to Kearny, in Northern Liberties, in time for the morning bell.

“Look at this,” Klimas says, opening the log she has kept of Danny’s tardy pickups. Except for October, when the bus miraculously arrived within minutes of its scheduled time, Danny’s transportation has been as unreliable as a Comcast service call.

On two back-to-back days in December, the bus never came at all.

Some days, sixth-grader Danny, 11, has been as late getting home. One time, he didn’t walk through the door until 5:30 p.m. He was famished and rattled from the two-hour bus ride.

“His day was longer than mine,” says Klimas, an optician who works in East Falls. She doesn’t drive, so if the bus is running really late, it costs her $30 in cab fare to get Danny to school.

She has endlessly e-mailed the district and left unanswered voice mails. She’s also routinely hung up in frustration when the voice-mail box was full.

Klimas worries that Danny, who has Down syndrome and is enrolled with six other intellectually disabled kids in Kearny’s terrific new life-skills program, has missed out on critical class time.

Despite continual reporting of her transit problems to the district, including calls and emails on her behalf made by Kearny principal Daniel Kurtz and his staff, the unpredictability has persisted, Klimas says.

As I listen to this very good mom’s tale of torment, I think, “Man, someone really needs to talk to the Pennsylvania Department of Education about this kind of stupidity.”

Except someone already did.

Last year, the local Coalition of Special Education Advocates filed a formal complaint with the department on behalf of special-ed students whose education plans call for district transportation to and from school.

For years, parents had complained that buses were frequently late. Routes were changed with little warning. Drivers and bus aides were poorly trained to deal with special-needs kids. And parents couldn’t get through to the district for help.

So the state investigated, sending surveys to 254 schools to inquire about transportation services to special-ed students in the 2014-15 school year.

Among the 93 schools that responded, 26 had no issues. The remaining 67 reported that buses had failed 10 times to pick up a student and had been late to school 392 times.

Yep, those are real numbers.

The state has since expanded its survey to monitor transportation services to any school that provides instruction to any district special-ed student.

Meanwhile, the state has concluded that special-ed students who miss instruction or therapies because of transportation problems are entitled to “compensatory education services” to make up for the times they were denied a “free and appropriate public education” as required by law.

Last month, a letter was to have been sent to parents of all special-ed students to tell them that.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard was not aware of the state’s action, but conceded that the district’s goal is always to get kids to school on schedule.

“We’re definitely not meeting that [obligation] all the time,” he says. “The expectation is on us to get it right.”

Still, he says, “we’re dealing with a very large urban transportation system, almost like SEPTA, with 1,600 routes. There are going to be problems with traffic and bus breakdowns that cause late arrivals for students.”

Of the district’s 280 buses, 160 have GPS systems that track in real time a vehicle’s whereabouts, he says; buses provided by private transportation companies to the district are already equipped with the devices.

They don’t appear to have helped special-ed student Terrell Ward, an eighth-grader at Morris E. Leeds Middle School in Mount Airy. His bus service was so erratic that his mom, Tamika Ward-Andrew, was summoned to Truancy Court last fall for his alleged massive absences.

In truth, she says, he was routinely dropped off at school after roll was taken.

“One time,” says Ward-Andrew, “the bus didn’t show up for two weeks in a row; the third week, it was late every day.”

She contacted the Education Law Center for help, and senior staff attorney Maura McInerney was able to get the truancy case dismissed. But Terrell’s record still shows 88 late days and 25 absences – most of them filed in error.

“Our next step is to get the record corrected,” says McInerney.

Hearing these tales, I am floored.

Children thrive on routine and structure. And parents – especially those working outside the home – need a degree of reliability to keep family life from flying off the rails.

And for special-needs kids, says McInerney, the need for predictability is even greater.

“When a child’s class day is disrupted, they can miss more than instruction,” says McInerney. “For children with emotional-support needs, predictability is a critical issue.”

Lateness throws them a curve ball they can’t handle.

Monica Klimas and Tamika Ward-Andrew say their sons love school. And both moms are impressed by the quality and commitment of the special-ed teachers at their kids’ schools.

If only they could say the same about the bus service they rely upon to get them there.

Parents having problems with district-provided transportation can call 215-400-4350, a hotline established as a result of the state investigation. For help securing compensatory services for a child’s missed instruction, contact the Education Law Center at 215-238-6970 or go to

Opinion: Unless we’re careful, the new ‘No Child’ may still leave some behind

PennLive Op-Ed – Dec. 24, 2015 – By Deborah Gordon Klehr and Jackie Perlow:

Earlier this month President Barack Obama signed into law a comprehensive overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), previously known as No Child Left Behind.

First passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the mission of this federal law is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”

While past iterations of ESEA have failed to fulfill this promise, this month’s reauthorization offers states like Pennsylvania an opportunity to reaffirm ESEA’s central mission to advance educational equity and protect the civil rights of vulnerable students.

In several ways this reauthorization, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), represents an improvement over existing legislation.

It will provide targeted support to struggling schools, including schools where traditionally overlooked student groups consistently underperform.

The new ESSA does more to hold schools responsible for the achievement of English language learners, including those with disabilities, and provides significant educational protections for children in foster care and those experiencing homelessness.

The law also expands educational opportunities for youth in the juvenile justice system and supports their smooth transition both into and out of juvenile justice school placements.

In addition, we know that many vulnerable students experience trauma, and ESSA also takes positive steps to support schools to recognize and address trauma. We applaud these important new provisions.

However, the Education Law Center remains concerned about whether the new law has the teeth to guarantee a quality public education to our state’s most vulnerable students.

On its face, the changes in ESSA will do little to improve resource inequities, discipline disparities, or the lack of opportunities for educationally at-risk students in Pennsylvania.

Most worrisome, however, is the law’s lack of federal oversight and accountability.

Under ESSA, much of the responsibility for ensuring educational opportunities for vulnerable students has been shifted to the states.

Both current research and our experience in Pennsylvania show that when states are given unfettered control over education, the civil rights of the most educationally vulnerable students often go unprotected and their academic outcomes suffer.

We are concerned that without federal oversight, schools in Pennsylvania may ignore the needs of the educationally vulnerable students they serve.

In no area is this concern more pressing than when it comes to school discipline. Under No Child Left Behind, schools faced harsh consequences if students failed to achieve on high-stakes testing.

This focus on standardized test scores incentivized schools to push out the students who posed the greatest challenges.

At the same time, states largely turned a blind eye to the resulting discipline practices that disproportionately excluded students of color and students with disabilities.

While data shows that students of all races violate school rules at the same rate, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

The consequences of punitive discipline reach far beyond missing a day or two of class.

Students who are suspended even once in ninth grade are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school.

We know that unless the state actively holds itself accountable for eliminating existing discipline disparities, discriminatory and overly punitive discipline practices will continue to act as barriers for our most vulnerable students.

While ESSA will not require Pennsylvania to address these disparities, it does offer an opportunity to do so.

Under ESSA, each state is charged with developing an accountability plan. This plan must include three academic factors and one non-academic factor.

The law permits states to choose “school climate” – a broad term that encompasses suspensions, expulsions, and removal to alternative education settings – as the non-academic factor in their accountability plan.

The Education Law Center urges Pennsylvania to take advantage of this opportunity and identify school climate as the fourth factor in its accountability plan.

We also caution Pennsylvania not to replicate the incentives in No Child Left Behind that drove schools to adopt exclusionary discipline practices in a failed attempt to improve school performance.

Rather, the state’s renewed attention to an accountability framework should address improving academic performance in tandem with addressing school discipline.

This opportunity is timely because the Wolf administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have recently announced plans to revamp the state’s current and flawed School Performance Profile metric, which often penalizes schools impacted by poverty rather than rewarding progress.

However, including this factor is only the first step. As the state begins the process of developing and implementing its accountability plan, it is vital that Pennsylvania engage parents, students, advocates, and educators in these decisions.

We urge the state to seek out communities and leaders with diverse perspectives and include their voices at every step in the accountability plan process.

Only by holding ourselves accountable for eliminating the barriers that harm vulnerable students and providing schools with the resources they need to support them will Pennsylvania be able to avoid the shortcomings of the ESSA and ensure that all students in the state receive the quality education they deserve.

Deborah Gordon Klehr is the Executive Director of the Education Law Center. Jackie Perlow, Esq. is the Kaufman Legal Fellow at the Education Law Center.