March 31, 2005
When the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law on January 8, 2002, the President and Congress presented the American people with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity rests in an historic piece of education legislation designed to close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students. The challenge lies in the need for parent and community leaders to become knowledgeable about and take advantage of various NCLB provisions for collaboration, engagement, and action.NCLB is indeed a groundbreaking piece of federal legislation. It sets forth national expectations of high academic achievement for all public school children through a mandate that all children will be performing proficiently by 2014. It significantly broadens the federal role in public education and defines more stringent standards of accountability for local public schools and districts.However, as evidenced by numerous reports and articles in the media, implementation of various provisions of the law is raising deep concerns at state and local levels. Clearly missing from this important and growing national debate are the voices of the public, particularly those from disadvantaged and disconnected communities. Parents, students and other members of the public -- largely unorganized and under-represented in national education policy -- are significantly affected by this law, inasmuch as the law is intended to enhance the effectiveness of public schools in every community by holding those schools accountable for educating every child to high standards.What has been the impact of the law on students, families, schools and communities? How can the perspectives and experiences of these individuals -- all directly or indirectly impacted by the law -- inform and improve the law and its implementation? What role does the public play in ensuring public schools that work in the context of NCLB for all children?In spring 2004, Public Education Network (PEN) sought answers to these questions by holding a series of nine public hearings across eight states. Our intention was to listen to public voices and to bring these voices to local, state and federal policymakers; to educators; to the media; and back out to the public at large. We also saw these hearings as a way to further educate the public about NLCB, building on a set of tools that PEN has produced since 2002, and to remind all Americans of the essential role that they must play to ensure a public education system that works for all children.It was important to us to honor the time and attention that the public was giving to this task. We were intentional in structuring the hearings in a respectful and consistent manner. We chose states in which to hold the hearings based on their large percentage of low-income children. All hearings were co-hosted by a local partner organization with deep ties to the community. A set of distinguished hearing officers who would listen attentively and ask probing questions of witnesses also helped to ensure authentic and meaningful testimony. The panels who testified were composed of almost equal numbers of students (high school and early college), parents of school-aged children attending public schools, and community members (including business and civic leaders and community activists) across the nine hearings. We also conducted an online survey regarding NCLB through our online advocacy tool, GiveKidsGoodSchools.org, to which we received 12,000 responses. These are referenced as well in the report. Since the absence of the public is too often evident in forums on public education, we intentionally did not invite professional educators to formally testify, although some did speak during 'open microphone' time following each of the formal panels.We are pleased to share what we heard. The findings include specific quotes from the public. We think it's important to bring the public's voice as clearly as we could. However, we also endeavored to cite findings and draw conclusions that reflect a general pattern or theme, which we heard across the hearings. We took great pains not to include opinions, experiences or perspectives that were unique to a particular family, community or district. The ecommendations derive from what we heard and PEN's own understanding of and experiences with the law.Our hope is that these representative voices from the public help inform how federal, state and local officials work to improve public education. As importantly, we hope that it serves as testimony to the deep concern and commitment that the public has about public education and about their local public schools.