Politics & Policy

Bush’s Centerpiece

Five years on, how is 'No Child Left Behind' faring?

The No Child Left Behind Act has been something of an anomaly during the Bush years. Enacting it was a central pledge of Bush’s 2000 campaign. When it passed the House in 2001, however, it drew more Democratic votes than Republican ones. George Miller and Ted Kennedy, the leading Democrats on the House and Senate education committees — and both proud liberals — had at least as much say over the final bill as Bush did.

This victory for bipartisanship occurred over conservative objections. Critics on the right complained that the administration had abandoned its support for school choice and had gone too far in federalizing education policy. The White House answered that federal action was necessary to force states to raise academic standards, and that it had struck as good a deal as it could on choice, since vouchers didn’t have enough support among congressional Republicans to overcome solid Democratic opposition.

As the new law was implemented, and as the 2004 elections drew near, a lot of the bipartisan support vanished. Congressional Democrats accused Bush of breaking his end of the deal by failing to provide adequate funds. Liberal education theorists, and many suburban parents, complained that the law’s vaunted “accountability system” resulted in too much “teaching to the test.” State governments, including many Republican ones, complained about federal meddling and unfunded mandates. Secretary of education Margaret Spellings, meanwhile, insists that the law, “like Ivory soap,” is “99.9 percent pure” and just needs a tiny amount of tinkering to be perfect.

The bill was more than 1,100 pages long, and sufficiently complex that rendering an overall judgment is difficult. When I asked Frederick Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, to do that, he responded, “It’s a little bit like asking how happy you are with what’s in the phone book.” But four years into the law’s implementation, it is possible to assess which criticisms have proven valid and which haven’t.

The accusations of underfunding don’t have much merit. It’s true that Washington hasn’t spent as much money as the law authorized, and there may even be some areas where additional federal spending would help (and other areas that could be cut to provide the funds). But the situation is not as scandalous as the Democrats make it sound. In fact, it’s routine for spending levels in authorizing laws to be treated as spending caps — to signify the upper limit of spending, not the required amount. And even though the maximum amount of funding has not been provided for No Child Left Behind, overall federal spending on education has increased 25 percent since 2001. The mandates of the law — new testing procedures and the like, which aren’t very expensive — are fully funded.

What of the charge that the act has encouraged teaching to the test? “That is not a big sin in my book if you’ve got a good test,” says Chester Finn, who studies education policy at the Fordham Foundation. He points out that Advanced Placement classes in high school are pretty openly devoted to teaching to tests — that is, to giving students the knowledge and skills necessary to do well on tests about the classes’ subject matter — and people applaud them.

Earlier this year, the New York Times carried a front-page story alleging that No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on reading and math, had caused schools to narrow their curricula by sacrificing other subjects. The data on which the Times relied were shaky. But over time, it is likely that the act will have that effect. In some schools, that won’t be a bad thing: How much science are kids going to be able to learn if they can’t read or multiply? In other schools, it could be a problem.

As conservatives predicted, the act’s school-choice provisions have been too weak to make much difference. Kids in chronically failing schools are allowed to transfer — but only to successful public schools in their own districts. For students in the worst school districts, that means there really isn’t any alternative. Also, as Hess notes, principals in the successful schools don’t have any real incentive to take transfer students. Fewer than 3 percent of eligible kids have taken advantage of the opportunity to transfer. More kids have been able to use the private tutoring services the act authorizes. But this option, too, has been designed badly. The act authorizes schools both to provide tutoring services themselves and to regulate private tutoring companies — a conflict of interest that impedes the market’s development.

One common complaint, lodged even by supporters of the act, is that its formulas for determining which schools are making “adequate yearly progress” need to be modified. The act requires states to create “accountability systems” to ensure that increasing percentages of kids (especially minority kids) in grades three through eight are “proficient” in reading and math. But it lets states define “proficiency.” This set-up has several perverse consequences. It rewards states for setting a low bar. So while states are posting impressive gains in “proficiency,” their kids aren’t scoring any higher in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests — the closest thing we have to an objective evaluation. The act also fails to reward schools for getting students close to the proficiency line but not over it. And it fails to reward them for helping kids who are already over it get even better.

But the leading alternative to this method of gauging progress has its own defects. That alternative is to measure and reward schools and states based on how much students’ achievement improves. There is a certain justice to this “value added” or “growth” approach. Educators might legitimately protest against being held accountable for all the influences on their students’ achievement levels that are beyond their control. But they can reasonably be held accountable for helping their students improve. The counter-argument, made by the administration and some liberal supporters of the act, is that the improvement standard would enshrine existing inequities. States would not be required to try to make their students, and especially their black students, proficient. And measuring improvement poses formidable technical challenges that few states have been able to overcome. Secretary Spellings has allowed Tennessee and North Carolina to test the value-added strategy.

There is some dispute over whether and how much American students’ test scores have improved over the last four years. Even on the most optimistic reading, however, there has been no dramatic improvement. The Fordham Foundation recently reviewed states’ standards and found that they have not gotten much more rigorous. Dan Lips, who follows education for the Heritage Foundation, allows that the act has generated a lot of information about schools’ performance (some of it conflicting and confusing, but some of it useful). But “it seems to me that little has been gained [in return for] the vast increase in federal power.”

Finn proposes that the federal government offer the states a kind of deal. Instead of letting the states establish their own tests, it should create a common testing system — so that states would no longer be able to dumb down their tests. In return, the states would have more flexibility in choosing what methods to use to get their students to score well on the test. That proposal will alarm some conservatives, who believe that national testing is a stake in the heart of local control. But it seems no more offensive to federalism than the status quo.

The No Child Left Behind Act is due to be reauthorized in the next Congress. Nobody in Congress seems interested in President Bush’s proposal to extend its testing regime to high schools. But nobody seems interested in making substantial changes soon, either. Most education staffers on the Hill expect action to be delayed until after the 2008 election. (In this scenario, Congress would renew the law as is for a year or two, to prevent it from expiring altogether.)

In short: Nobody is all that happy with the law, but nobody wants to make any real reforms, either. As a result, any significant improvements will have to wait until later — which makes the law much like American education as a whole.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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