Contradictory Reforms: When NCLB Undermines Charter School Innovation

Peter Martin
The article discusses how instead of being parts of a concerted educational reform effort, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the development of charter schools are in fact contradictory initiatives. Basing itself on a theoretical framework that brings together issues inherent to outcome-based school reform and arguments supporting and criticizing both NCLB and charter schools, the article examines the case of a specific charter school whose program was significantly altered due to pressures
more » ... to pressures imposed by NCLB. School reports, plans, programmatic descriptions, and other documents are reviewed to examine how the school responded over a three-year period to low test scores that may or may not have been a reflection of instructional quality and how NCLB requirements eventually led it to move far away from its original reform-minded mission. Implications regarding how NCLB can undermine the innovative possibilities of charter schools are discussed, along with more general entailments regarding wider public school reform efforts. In the current context of attempts to change our country's public schools, one overarching problem has been reconciling what are in fact two separate efforts. On one hand there is, with the propagation of charter schools, an opportunity for innovation and invention that allows us to explore new possibilities for designing programs aimed at solving chronic problems that our educational system seems not to have adequate solutions for (Nathan, 1998). On the other hand, we have developed by means of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) a reform effort that pushes for predefined outcomes as quickly as possible, insisting that the non-negotiable priority for every school be to receive satisfactory results on a specific type of assessment in math and reading. The more a school struggles in satisfying these demands for good results on high-stakes standardized tests, the less latitude it has in terms of pedagogical choice. Each of these two reform efforts has a compelling logic of its own and strong support as well as vocal detractors. The problem, however, is that these approaches contradict each other in important ways, and may represent a kind of schizophrenia in our educational thought. On one hand we want innovation. Instead of prescribing solutions we want local stakeholders to make decisions without too much outside interference. We have faith in our ingenuity and our spirit of entrepreneurship and we distrust efforts of government engineering. On the other hand, we also believe in accountability, checks and balances, and the presumed honesty of clear numerical results, and despise it when excuses are made. The effort on the part of NCLB to direct schools to concentrate on test results also limits the experimental possibilities of charter schools, which may, arguably, result in missed opportunities in regard to discovering new solutions and therefore opportunities for educational reform. In order to explore how these two reform efforts can interact in practice, this article examines the case of the Bilingual Community Academy (ABC for its initials in Spanish), an innovative charter middle school whose program and practices had to respond to NCLB pressures due to low standardized test scores. The point of the