Politics & Policy

Leaving My Lapel Pin Behind

Is No Child Left Behind's birthday worth celebrating?

For five years now, I’ve considered myself a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act. And not just the casual flag-waver variety. Much of that time I spent inside the Bush administration, trying to make the law work, explaining its vision to hundreds of audiences, even wearing an NCLB pin on my lapel. I was a True Believer.

#ad#In a way, I still am. After all, in the 21st century, saying you “support” NCLB is shorthand for affirming a set of ideas, values, and hopes for the country as much as an expression about a particular statute. I’m not just referring to the proposition that “no child should be left behind” — the notion that we have a moral responsibility to provide a decent education for everyone. Ninety-nine percent of the education establishment can get behind that “purpose” of the law and still resist meaningful reform.

I mean a set of powerful — and controversial — ideas that provide the subtext for all the big NCLB battles. First, that virtually all children (even those living in poverty) have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18 — and that it’s the education system’s job to make sure they do. Second, that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure — i.e., accountability — in order to improve; good intentions aren’t enough. Third, that good education is synonymous with good teaching. This requires good teachers, which every child deserves, but which today’s education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede. Fourth, that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits, from creating healthy competitive pressures to allowing educators to customize their programs instead of trying to be all things to all people. And fifth, that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.

In other words, at the level of ideas, NCLB is the embodiment of the 1990s era education reform playbook. Educators, policymakers, think tankers, and activists who “support” NCLB are saying “I’m part of the education reform team.”

But does that mean that they necessarily agree with the machinery of the law itself? Speaking personally, I’ve gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair.

Of course, I harbored doubts about certain specifics from the beginning. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the “highly qualified teachers” mandate as a huge overreach and a probable failure, as it took a reasonable notion (teachers should know their stuff) and tried to enforce it through a rigid rule-based mechanism (second guessing principals who, for instance, hired engineers as math teachers). Nor was it hard to determine that asking all states to reach universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowing them to define “proficiency” as they saw fit would create a race to the bottom.

Other flaws took me longer to appreciate. For example:

‐ Surely schools would respond thoughtfully to the law’s incentives to boost achievement in reading and math, and would understand that providing a broad, content-rich education would give them the best shot at boosting test scores, right? Yet the anecdotes (and increasingly, evidence) keep rolling in of schools turning into test-prep factories and narrowing the curriculum. (See here, for example.)

‐ Surely if those of us at the Department of Education pushed hard enough we could get districts to inform parents of their school-choice options under the law, and ensure that kids trapped in failing schools have better places to go, right? Yet (as I conclude in this paper presented in December at the American Enterprise Institute), hard experience has shown that “stronger implementation” would only make a difference at the margin. It cannot solve the fundamental problem: in most of our big cities, there are too few good schools to go around. Uncle Sam can’t snap his fingers and make it otherwise. Furthermore, while it’s hard enough to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don’t want to do, it’s impossible to force them to do those things well. And when it comes to informing parents, creating new schools, or implementing almost any of NCLB’s many pieces, it’s not enough for states or districts to go through the motions. They have to want to make it succeed. If they don’t, Washington is out of luck. It has no tools or levers to alter the situation. That’s why I’ve called much of the law “un-implementable.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the AFT’s Michele McLauglin wrote in her NCLB blog about the AEI conference, “Petrilli and Checker Finn…seem to be arguing for a more limited role for the feds in education because the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t have the ability to get states and districts to implement the law well. Unless I am missing something, this seems to be a shift in position for the Fordham Foundation, which has been a major supporter of NCLB.”

Guilty as charged. I can’t pretend any longer that the law is “working,” or that a tweak and a tuck would make it “work.” Yet I still like its zeitgeist. As Kati Haycock argued at the AEI confab, NCLB has “changed the conversation” in education. Results are now the coin of the realm; the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is taboo; closing the achievement gap is at the top of everyone’s to-do list. All for the good. More than good. But let’s face it: it doesn’t help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law’s nonsensical provisions — the specifics that keep NCLB from achieving its own aims.

Here’s the crux of the matter: when it’s time for reauthorization, can we overhaul the law itself without letting go of its powerful ideas? Two other outcomes are more likely. One is the tweak regimen: the law gets renewed but remains mostly unchanged, and we continue to muddle through, driving even well-intentioned educators crazy and not achieving the results we seek. (This is the prediction of most “education insiders.” It amounts to ostrich-like stubbornness in the face of evidence that an overhaul is what’s needed. The second is bathtub emptying: Throw the baby out along with the murky water and give up on the law and its ideals. Then we go back to the days when schools felt little pressure to get all of their students prepared for college and life and democratic participation, and we declare No Child Left Behind another failed experiment.

That would be a disaster.

What, then, to do? In my opinion, the way forward starts with a more realistic assessment of what the federal government can reasonably hope to achieve in education. Using sticks and carrots to tug and prod states and districts in desired directions has proven unworkable. It was worth trying but experience has taught us that this approach suffers from too much hubris and humility at the same time. Instead of this muddle, the feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself, or don’t do it at all.

In the “Do it Yourself” category would be two major responsibilities: distributing funds to the neediest students, and collecting and publishing transparent information about the performance of U.S. schools. Redistributing funds is easy; it’s what Washington does best. Still, it could do it even better by adopting weighted-student funding, ensuring that dollars follow children to their school of choice, with extra cash following students with the greatest needs. Furthermore, it could do more to ensure that high poverty schools receive equitable resources before the federal dollars arrive. (December’s Funding Gaps report from Ed Trust demonstrates the screwiness of today’s federal-funding formulas.)

As for its second responsibility, an important bullet waits to be bitten: collect and publish swift, reliable, and comparable data on the performance of the nation’s schools via clear national standards, a rigorous national test, and a common approach to school ratings (e.g. a single definition of “adequate yearly progress”). Then everyone would have a consistent and fair way to distinguish good schools from bad. We would have consistently high expectations for all students and all schools, and would end the federal/state cat-and-mouse games being played over accountability. The federal government should also make school-level financial information transparent (a necessity to achieve the funding reforms mentioned above) and continue to pay for high-quality research and make its results transparent and accessible to all.

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen. These policy battles should return to the state level, where governments can actually do something about them and do them right. And if the federal government just can’t help itself and wants to “promote” these causes, let it offer competitive grants for states and districts that want to move in these directions.

The Do It Yourself or Don’t Do It At All Act doesn’t have the same ring as leaving no child behind. But its zeitgeist is the same. It would also be a better fit for our federalist system and a more effective vehicle for the reform ideas that we NCLB supporters hold so dear. In this new year, let us resolve to be humble enough to admit the law’s limitations and brave enough to stand up for its ideals.


 –  Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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