Politics & Policy

Fool Me Twice

No Child Left Behind again. Only worse.

With all the trappings of an IMPORTANT WASHINGTON EVENT, including the presence of the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House education committees, the Commission on No Child Left Behind yesterday unveiled a report that should be called “No Idea Left Behind.” That’s not meant as a compliment.

With George W. Bush’s signature domestic program, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, headed for reauthorization, this bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel, led by two stellar ex-governors and funded by Gates and other big-deal private foundations under the aegis of the august Aspen Institute, was supposed to provide a blueprint for the law’s rewrite.

Quantitatively, it succeeded. Its sprawling 200-page report, capped with 75 separate recommendations, proffers solutions to almost every problem ailing U.S. education. What it doesn’t do is sketch a coherent vision for NCLB version 2.0. If conservatives thought Bush’s original law was a dubious venture, heavy as it is on big-government mandates and light on school choice, this version would be markedly worse. It’s the antithesis of what you might expect from former Wisconsin governor and commission co-chair Tommy Thompson, one of America’s foremost proponents of school choice (and of state flexibility in welfare reform), who must have been consumed by his nascent presidential campaign and left the drafting to staff.

The future the commission depicts gives Washington yet more power over the nation’s schools; its summary recommendations use the word “require” (often followed by the word “states”) at least 35 times. By contrast, we found just half a dozen “allows” or “permits.” Seems the panel is six times more interested in issuing new federal mandates than providing flexibility to states, districts or schools.

This approach to NCLB reform ignores the big lesson of the past five years: 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. By deploying enough regulations, enforcement actions and threats of monies withheld, Washington may coerce compliance with the law’s letter. Yet when it comes to the hard, messy work of improving schools (and teachers, principals, etc.), compliance doesn’t cut it. What’s needed is a new federal-state compact, focused single-mindedly on school results and truly flexible as to how they’re produced, freeing states, schools, and educators to innovate and take risks, leveraging America’s federalist system rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

That’s not the commission’s approach. Insofar as its report has a theme, it’s “Do more of what Uncle Sam tells you.” If NCLB 1.0 ran 700 pages, the enacted version of this one would likely take 1700. It fixes a few flaws but mostly piles new mandates on top.

Some are plumb dreadful. The worst — ominously listed first — would “require all teachers to produce student learning gains and receive positive principal or teacher peer review evaluations to meet the new definition of a Highly Qualified and Effective Teacher (HQET).” That Orwellian recommendation illustrates the basic flaw in this approach: Start with a sound instinct (gauging teachers’ effectiveness by their impact on pupil achievement). Then pretend that the U.S. Department of Education is a National Education Ministry, able to micromanage complicated processes (like vetting teachers) from Washington. Neglect to undo the mistakes of NCLB, so that instructors must also still meet the current law’s paperwork-laden, credential-heavy “highly qualified teachers” requirements (which mostly serve to keep talented people out of the classroom) even if they do prove effective at boosting student achievement. If past is prologue, the U.S. Department of Education will most likely muck up this entire enterprise, setting back a promising idea (evaluating teachers based on their impact on student learning) for a generation.

Other vexing NCLB problems get neglected. Current law promises kids stuck in low-performing schools that they can exit for better ones in their districts. Yet this isn’t happening because most such districts have few decent schools with empty seats. The answer is to expand supply and create more choices, via more charter schools, letting kids cross district lines, even including private schools. None of these expanded options appears in the report. (The phrase “private school” never appears and charters get only glancing attention.)

To be sure, there are some currants in this pudding: The commission would make it easier for families to access to the law’s free tutoring program. It would give principals the authority to bar weak teachers from their schools. It would consider year-to-year student learning gains when determining whether schools make the grade. (This is especially important for charter schools, which often enroll students who start out several years behind.) It tries to assure that needy schools get their fair measure of state and district resources before federal dollars are added on top. And it sketches an interesting approach to national standards, which we regard as a precondition for giving states true freedom to operate their schools as they think best.

Amazingly, the administration’s recent NCLB proposals are bolder and sounder. One might think pride of authorship would constrain the Bush team while dispassionate scrutiny would energize the commission to think fresh. Didn’t happen. Most likely this group saw its charge as drafting a set of technocratic proposals that Congress could approve swiftly. What’s especially worrying is that Congress, at least its new majority, might even go along — the more so since the commission’s executive director is now moving to Capitol Hill to shepherd the law’s renewal.

Some have claimed that NCLB reauthorization is a chance for bipartisan comity and action. If this report is to serve as the blueprint, we urge Congress (especially Republicans) to try for immigration reform instead.

— Chester E. Finn is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president. Both have served Republican administrations in the U.S. Department of Education.

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