Politics & Policy

No Question Left Behind

Monsters in the law.

With every passing week, the 110th Congress looks less likely to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the fate of which will therefore hinge on the 2008 election. This contentious law cannot be revamped absent a fairly broad and bipartisan consensus. George Miller and Nancy Pelosi could conceivably bring a bill before the House and possibly ram it through on a near-straight party-line vote (though such a move would provoke more Democratic defections than GOP supporters), but it would come unstuck in the Senate, where it’s essential nowadays to have 60 firm votes for anything controversial. Which this would surely be.

The truth is, despite all the fuss and feathers about NCLB, there’s little agreement on exactly what ails or what might cure it — which is not to say there’s a shortage of advice. A five-foot shelf of books, studies, reports, commission recommendations, etc. is rapidly accumulating. (I plead guilty to having helped contribute a few inches.) Its very amplitude attests not only to the length and complexity of the law, but also to the disputed nature of what, exactly, is awry in NCLB 1.0 and what should be the essential attributes of version 2.0. Even more important, underlying all the technical specifics are five immense dilemmas that go to the heart of the matter.

Is NCLB’s grand goal itself naïve and unrealistic? Politicians pledge that no child will be left behind, yet I don’t know a single educator who seriously thinks 100 percent of American children can become “proficient” (according to any reasonable definition of that term) by 2014 in reading and math. Exemptions have already been made for seriously disabled youngsters. In truth, raising American kids from their current proficiency level of some 30 percent to 70 or 80 percent would be a remarkable, nation-changing achievement, yet I can’t imagine a lawmaker conceding this. The first thing hurled back at him would be “which 20 percent of the kids don’t matter to you?”

Is the program upside down? My Fordham colleagues and I think NCLB inverted a fundamental design principle: Congress opted to be tight with regard to means and loose with regard to ends. It trusts every state to set its own standards, but micromanages measurement systems and sets rigid sequences for school and district interventions. It would be far better to promulgate a single national standard and assessment system, and then to trust states, districts, and educators to devise their own means of getting there on their own timetables. But half of Congress will recoil in horror from the freedom and flexibility implied therein while the other half will be put off by uniform standards.

‐ Is the governmental architecture usable for this purpose? In LBJ’s day, it made sense for Uncle Sam to distribute his new education dollars via the traditional structures of state education departments and local school systems. Four decades later, however, the main focus of federal policy is altering the behavior and performance of those very institutions in ways they don’t want to be altered. It’s beyond imagining that the old, multi-tiered architecture can satisfactorily handle the new challenge of making it change its ways. Yet nobody is thinking creatively about alternative structures by which NCLB’s goals might more effectively be pursued.

‐ Can Washington successfully pull off anything as complex and ambitious as NCLB in so vast and loosely coupled a system as American K–12 education, one in which millions of “street-level bureaucrats” can ignore, veto, or undermine the plans of distant lawmakers and regulators? I’m no great fan of local control of schools but I’m even less a fan of bureaucratic over-reaching.

‐ Do the likely benefits exceed the ever clearer costs? Boosting skill levels and closing learning gaps are praiseworthy societal goals. But even if we were surer that NCLB would attain them, plenty of people — parents, teachers, lawmakers, and interest groups — are alarmed by the price. I don’t refer primarily to dollars. (They’re in dispute, too, with most Democrats wrongly insisting that they’re insufficient.) I refer to things like a narrowing curriculum that sacrifices history, art, and literature on the altar of reading and math skills; to schools that spend ever more of the year prepping kids to pass tests; to gifted pupils being neglected so as to pull low achievers over the bar; and to the homogenizing of schools — including charter schools — that crave the freedom to be different and offer parents distinctive choices.

So long as these monster questions lack agreed-upon answers, I don’t see much hope for an NCLB consensus, and I don’t see much hope for NCLB 2.0 anytime soon.

  — Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at Stanfords Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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