President George W. Bush signed No Child Behind into law in 2002 with the best of intentions. However, as all too often happens, good intentions were bedeviled by stumbling blocks in the real world. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has transformed public schools and, in the process, opened the door to an ever-more-centralized educational system. In recent years, a variety of groups — including teachers’ unions, parent organizations, grassroots progressives, and conservative activists — have complained about the current trajectory of American education.
In January, the Senate began to examine NCLB, taking up the question of whether to revise it, and the House will probably vote on revisions to NCLB later this month. This effort might not go anywhere. After all, past Congresses have tried and failed to revise NCLB. But let’s hope it’s not another dead end, because reform could help create an educational system that is more responsive to local communities.
High-stakes standardized tests were at the center of No Child Left Behind, and any revision of the law would have to take into account testing practices. If Congress wishes to undo the Gordian knot of federal-education-policy red tape, it will have to revise federal accountability standards.
NCLB required each state to design an “accountability” system for its students; this mandate included the stipulation that every public-school student in the United States had to score at the “proficient” level on state-administered standardized tests by 2014. Nearly every public school has failed to meet that standard of a 100 percent “proficiency” rating for students. NCLB’s sky-high standards have given the federal government further leverage in shaping American education. The Obama administration has granted “waivers” from NCLB to 43 states — as long as these states agree to certain conditions set by the administration. The waiver process combined with the Race to the Top program has helped the Obama White House impose its vision for education (including Common Core) on the nation as a whole.
This vision involves an endlessly expanding bureaucracy and a swelling stream of tests. Under NCLB, 17 tests are mandated by the federal government each year, including annual exams in mathematics and reading for students in grades three through eight. As a condition of relief from NCLB and to obtain access to Race to the Top money, the states typically must develop ways to evaluate teachers via students’ standardized test scores. This means that nearly every individual class, from second-grade reading to high-school physics, could be subjected to a round of standardized testing. Michael J. Petrilli — head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a major education think tank — estimates that much of the growth in testing can be traced to this teacher “accountability” mandate.
#page#For sure, No Child Left Behind has led to some improvements to the American educational system, but its accountability standards have taken power away from parents and local schools and given it to bureaucrats. This shift toward centralization is ironic in light of how comparatively little the federal government contributes to the funding of K–12 public education. According to the Department of Education, the federal government contributes only about 10.8 percent of the funding received by the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools. The rest comes from state and local governments. Therefore, under a nationalized educational policy, the funding tail is essentially wagging the policy dog.
Under the new regime of waivers and Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind in practice has already been superseded. NCLB 2.0 has sparked a growing populist backlash, as communities fear the transfer of educational power from local school boards to the offices of Washington bureaucrats and large testing companies. Common Core has acted as a symbol for the growing centralization, but the trend toward centralized education extends far beyond Common Core. Polling suggests that across the political spectrum, the public is increasingly skeptical of this trend toward centralized education.
Restoring autonomy to local schools has considerable grassroots support on both the left and the right, but this enterprise faces some challenges in Washington. In Congress, even while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might wish to change the testing standards of No Child Left Behind, a clear majority has not yet agreed on the precise changes they would endorse. Some want to keep annual testing standards (perhaps revising them in some way); others want to weaken the influence of standardized testing in public schools.
In January, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) issued a draft text that proposes significantly changing the assessment paradigm. He presents two different options: States could continue testing according to the rules of No Child Left Behind, or they could create their own systems and standards of assessment. These state-developed assessments could include standardized tests, but they could also include student portfolios, collaborative projects, and other tasks. States would still have to provide annual reports on student achievement, but individual students would not necessarily have to undergo annual tests.
Senator Alexander wants to keep D.C. from becoming what he calls a “national school board,” but he is keeping his options open on testing. Many other senators are following suit. In a mid-January Senate hearing about revising NCLB, Republicans and Democrats alike emphasized the limits of the current testing regime, as did many of the committee’s witnesses. However, the committee itself seemed split between those — such as Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass) — who emphasized the importance of annual standardized tests as a way of making states accountable and those — such as Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) and Richard Burr (R., N.C.) — who were much more critical about the value of a singular focus on standardized tests.
One hybrid proposal, suggested by Harvard professor Martin R. West, would retain federal mandates of annual testing but allow states to determine the threshold at which a school is “failing” and to set the consequences for struggling schools. Michael Petrilli argues that this hybrid would mandate transparency without creating one-size-fits-all consequences. Senator Alexander also seems sympathetic to this approach. West’s suggestion would reduce the onerous burden of federal mandates while potentially mollifying those who insist on the value of standardized tests for quantifying student achievement.
Getting Democrats to sign on to a revision of NCLB reform will be crucial; without at least six Senate Democrats, education reform is going nowhere. And any bill that passes Congress would then go to the White House, which favors testing-driven education reform. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has defended the importance of annual testing for student achievement, which suggests that the Obama administration would look askance at any proposal that would weaken the power of testing. But the White House has thus far set down relatively few explicit policy markers; for now, Congress has room to craft legislation.
The passage of No Child Left Behind required unlikely alliances, such as that between George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy. Revising it might require a similar willingness to set aside differences in pursuit of common aims. People on the left and right might disagree on many issues — charter schools, school choice, various funding practices, and so forth — but weakening the power of federally mandated standardized tests could bring together teachers’ unions and Tea Partiers. A shift away from rigid schemes of federal “accountability” would curb the White House’s ability to demand how teachers should be evaluated, what should be taught, and how schools should be administered. It would allow for more diversity in America’s educational system and could spur more educational innovation. Jettisoning some of the NCLB mandates would help build a more flexible education system that better recognizes the range of students’ needs, gifts, and potentials.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.