Since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2001, school administrators have spent a lot of time wrangling with its complexities. The controversial legislation is changing, in many respects, the way schools operate. And as more provisions of the law take effect, those changes will impact parent groups, too.

Initially, many parent groups hosted informational sessions to help parents sort out what NCLB means for their children. Now, groups are finding that it also may have far-reaching effects on their own role in the school. In particular, they are trying to assess their evolving role in curriculum improvement.

NCLB seeks to improve American schools by increasing accountability. In every state that receives federal education funding, each public school must measure the abilities of every child in reading and math in each of grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 10-12. Testing in science will be required beginning in fall 2007.

In addition to receiving the scores of their own children, parents also receive “report cards” on the achievements of their children’s school and school district. Parents with children in schools that do not meet state standards for at least two years in a row have the option to transfer their children to another district public school with better scores—with transportation provided by the district.

Students from low-income families in schools that fail to meet state standards for at least three years are entitled to extra help in the form of tutoring, after-school services, and summer school. Now that NCLB is three years old, schools will feel the pressure of these new demands acutely in the 2004-2005 school year. The next marker will hit in 2006; if “adequate yearly progress” is still not evident after five years, the federal government will demand “dramatic changes to the way the school is run,” such as replacing staff or extending the school day.

The impact of this new legislation is felt most keenly by school principals, who admit to mixed feelings. “Principals are of two minds about NCLB,” says Tony Harduar, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the principal of Central Elementary School in Ferndale, Wash. “On the one hand, we see it as a way to have a positive impact on students who have been underserved for many years, like migrant kids and minorities. On the other hand, there are a number of problems with the law. There is no funding, in spite of what the Department of Education tells you. On top of that are the [unreasonable] standards; I don’t know how we’d ever achieve them.”

Roger Vanderhye, principal of Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean, Va., shares those sentiments. “I like the idea behind it, that no one can wash their hands of any child by saying ‘I taught it and they didn’t learn it,’” he says. “But to me the verdict is still out. The emphasis on paper and pencil is ridiculous. Children show what they know in a multiple performance way.”

That’s a particular point of frustration for Bruce Miller, principal of Brandywine Elementary School in Greenfield, Ind., which has two self-contained special needs classes. “A standardized test is not the way to determine if a kid with special learning problems is learning,” he says.

NCLB also takes a lot of time. “I spend less time with parents,” admits Harduar. “And with parent groups, we spend more time talking about test scores than what’s happening in the school.”

A Role for Parent Groups

Parent groups have expended a lot of effort trying to explain NCLB to parents through informational sessions about what the legislation means and what the scores for their children and for the school represent. Joyce Epstein, director of the National Network of Partnership Schools in Baltimore sees the role of parent groups as a bridge for understanding. She says, “PTOs or PTAs could have a committee, a web of information experts who could help parents interpret these reports if they had questions, especially if these leaders spoke different languages.”

At many schools, these informational sessions have consumed several parent group meetings throughout the year. Part of the complexity of communicating the details of NCLB lies in how testing is—or is not—related to what is being taught.

“Most parents don’t relate curriculum to testing; they see it as two different things,” says Miller. “They’re concerned about their school looking good on testing reports and making adequate yearly progress. But they equate that more with test preparation. They ask, ‘What are you doing to bring the test scores up?’ They never mention curriculum.”

That may be because curriculum improvement hasn’t traditionally been the job of the parent group. “It’s not necessarily that a parent group could go up to teachers and say, We’re ready to join you in improving student achievement,’” says Karen Clark Salinas, NNPS communications director. “People are not used to thinking that way. It takes them a while to figure out how to do that. Teachers might be hesitant to really get into that with parents unless the parents were structured in their leadership, helping to facilitate that [change].”

And in fact, at least at this early stage of the fallout from NCLB, many PTOs prefer to leave curriculum development to the experts—the principals and teachers. Instead of coming forward as a group to help improve curriculum, some parents are more comfortable in offering to help in more personally supportive ways, such as one-on-one tutoring. Yet there is also evidence of a shift in focus for parent group planning, with traditional community-building activities doing double duty as ways to guide parents in helping their children with specific skills.

Changing the Focus

More and more schools are hosting more and more family nights for math, reading, writing, and science, with parents and children invited to the school to engage in fun but educational activities that involve everyone in the learning process. PTOs are spending months at a time on math or reading, holding festival-like events with an academic slant along with daily in-school activities to build excitement about achievement.

At Clara E. Westropp Fundamental Elementary School in Cleveland, for example, a family resource center run by parent and community volunteers encourages students to borrow materials to take home to improve their literacy and math skills. At eight Parent Benchmark Nights at Lincoln Elementary School in Wichita, Kan., parents and children received portfolios focused on the different assessments in reading, math and writing, and scores in all three areas rose that year.

Occasionally, though, parent groups take a more political role. In Roswell, N.M., discussion about standardized testing championed by the district superintendent escalated into unrest—and then action.

John Maxey, past president of the Roswell Parents Council, says parents felt that testing in the district’s schools was excessive. Maxey says that students were being tested nine times a year in each of three subjects—reading, language arts, and math—in addition to three other forms of assessment for benchmark testing. And the price tag, he says, was $270,000 a year. The council discovered that surrounding districts were testing much less often, and they also gathered analysis from experts who attributed the school’s fluctuating scores to a change in test format rather than anything accomplished by district administration.

Three hundred parents rallied for a school board meeting, resulting in a vote of no confidence from some administrators for the district superintendent, whose fate rests with an upcoming school board vote. But no matter what the outcome of that particular referendum, other administrators have promised to re-evaluate the state of testing in the district. And Maxey urges parents to learn more about NCLB: “Parents need to educate themselves with regard to this complicated legislation, or they will be at the mercy of whoever’s selling them an idea.”

Even More Support Needed

While many parents may wonder about the need for regular testing, most want to do all they can to support their schools. This begins with making sure their children are present and prepared physically and mentally for the tests with adequate rest and nutrition. Often, parent groups adopt a supportive role in reminding parents about how to get their children ready for test days.

Parent groups also are continuing their role as fundraisers who purchase needed materials for their schools, with perhaps a greater focus on curriculum-related items like books and supplementals like math manipulatives.

Paul Young, principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, says that with all the discussion about NCLB and the growing importance of test scores, “Our PTO group would be very aware of our needs. If we had any particular needs to purchase, they would have no doubt about buying such things for us.” And with such a concentration on curriculum improvements in reading and math, the PTO’s traditional role in providing for “extras” like music and art has become even more vital than ever.

For most parent groups trying to assess their proper role in the post-NCLB landscape, there’s a sense of feeling their way slowly through uncharted territory. Says Darla Stratton, cochair of the Parkway Parent Information Network in Missouri’s Parkway School District: “This is such a new type of thing that I’m not sure it’s really hit us yet as to what we can do, what the impact of NCLB is going to be and how we can affect that.”