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Boxed in by Bad Policy

February 15, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

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There are about 1,800 principals in Minnesota. Each oversees a school that has been affected by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. While NCLB was created in Washington D.C., it has permeated education down into each classroom. NCLB has forced principals to make draconian choices to meet NCLB requirements, choices made more difficult in Minnesota's atmosphere of declining funding and diminished results.

In December, 2008, Minnesota 2020 joined with the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association (MESPA) and the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) to conduct a survey of principals. More than 740 MESPA and MASSP members participated in the online, opt-in poll.

This survey allowed principals to give voice to their misgivings of the NCLB law, which is up for reauthorization in Congress. The survey found that:

  • Almost every respondent said that NCLB's main goal - 100 percent proficiency in tests by 2014 - is unattainable. Ninety seven percent of principals say schools will not meet mandated No Child Left Behind compliance by 2014.
  • NCLB forces schools to teach to the test. To improve their standardized test scores, 71 percent say they are spending more time and resources on test preparation; 40 percent say they have taken away class time from arts and other subjects; and 60 percent say they have reallocated professional development monies to focus on test subjects.
  • NCLB affects community understanding of their schools. Seventy five percent say their community does not have a good idea of what Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is, yet 67 percent say AYP colors the community's perception of their school.
  • NCLB's testing requirements for special education students and students who don't speak English are unrealistic and set schools up for failure. Many schools fail to make AYP because of how special education and non-English speaking students perform on the standardized test. Almost 90 percent of the principals say special education students should not be tested at grade level, while 88 percent feel the same about Limited English Proficient students.
  • The NCLB test, MCA-II, is an ineffective measure of student development. Only 15.5 percent of principals say the MCA-II is an effective assessment of student achievement. More than 96 percent said that an assessment that measures student growth over many years is more useful than the MCA-II. Principals also overwhelmingly agree that the MCA-II is not an effective enough assessment to measure teacher or administrator performance.

Principals have a lot on their plates: The state has cut school funding 14 percent since 2003, forcing principals to join superintendents and other administrators to become cheerleaders and fundraisers in addition to educators. More than 90 percent of school districts rely on local referendums to meet basic operating needs. Economic and cultural diversity has combined with a burgeoning special education population to make the student body an entirely different institution than it was a generation ago. One half of all teachers leave their first positions within five years, making principals spend a large amount of their time hiring new teachers or working with their district's human resource officer. Principals are responsible for the safety of their students and the well-being of their faculty.

It is in this arena that NCLB creates tension. The job of an educator is difficult enough without having to work with a program that has dubious results.

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