World and Nation

No Child Left Behind Law Up for Renewal, Prescribing Harsh Rules

As the director of high schools in the gang-infested neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, Guadalupe Paramo struggles every day with educational dysfunction.

For the past half-dozen years, not even one in five students at her district’s teeming high schools has been able to do grade-level math or English. At Lincoln High this year, only seven in 100 students could. At Woodrow Wilson High, only four in 100 could.

For chronically failing schools like these, the No Child Left Behind law up for renewal in Congress prescribes drastic measures: firing teachers and principals, shutting schools and turning them over to a private company, a charter operator or the state itself, or a major overhaul in governance.

But more than 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools are branded chronic failures and the numbers are growing. Barring revisions in the law, state officials predict that all 6,063 public schools serving poor students will be declared in need of restructuring by 2014, when the law requires universal proficiency in math and reading.

“What are we supposed to do?” asks Paramo. “Shut down every school?”

With the education law in its fifth year — the one in which its more severe penalties are supposed to come into wide play — California is not the only state overwhelmed by growing numbers of schools that can’t satisfy the law’s escalating demands.

In Florida, 441 schools could be candidates for closure. In Maryland, some 49 schools in Baltimore alone have fallen short of achievement targets for five years or more. In New York, 77 schools were candidates for restructuring as of last year.

Some districts, like New York City, have moved aggressively to shut large, failing high schools and break them into small schools. Los Angeles, too, is trying small schools, along with other innovations, and David L. Brewer III, its schools superintendent, has just announced plans to create a “high priority district” under his direct control made up of 40 problem schools.

Yet so far, education experts say they are unaware of a single state that has taken over a failing school in response to the law. Instead, most allow school districts to seek less drastic ways to improve.

“When you have a state like California with so many schools up for restructuring, that taxes the capacity of the whole school change industry,” said Heinrich Mintrop, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

As a result, the law is branding numerous schools as failing, but not producing radical change — leaving angry parents demanding redress. California citizen’s groups have sued the state and federal government for failing to deliver on the law’s promises.

“They’re so busy fighting No Child Left Behind,” said Mary Johnson, president of Parent U-Turn, a civic group.