Magazine | October 15, 2012, Issue

No Child Left Behind, Left Behind

And not a moment too soon

In 2002, Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush did that rarest of things: They enacted a major reform with true bipartisan support. In Congress, their No Child Left Behind Act received “No” votes from only 45 representatives and eight senators. The law required states to test their students on reading and math, and required individual schools to make “adequate yearly progress” on various measures. Schools that failed to make such progress would be required to take corrective action, and if that failed they would be restructured.

Almost everyone agreed that NCLB was the way forward. And now almost everyone agrees that the legislation has been a disaster. The Obama administration, demonstrating its usual enthusiasm for simply ignoring laws it doesn’t like, is giving states waivers from NCLB’s worst provisions. States, in turn, are taking advantage of the loosened rules in droves. And while Mitt Romney has a long track record of support for NCLB and praises it effusively in his campaign literature, even he sees a need to address its grave flaws. Congress has yet to act on NCLB reauthorization, which is due this year. NCLB, as it was originally passed, is on its deathbed.

Aside from the fact that NCLB asserted federal control over what is rightfully a state and local matter, there are two major problems with the law: It sets completely unreasonable standards, and it fails to keep states and schools from cheating to meet those standards.

If you remember just one thing about No Child Left Behind, remember that it actually contains this text:

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress [on its students’ standardized-test scores]. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students [described in the law — basically, all students, period] will meet or exceed the State’s [standard for “proficiency”] on the State assessments.

This amounts to pointing at the states and instructing them to fix everything that’s wrong with their schools, their teachers, and their children. And to make matters worse, states were required to track the progress of several subgroups — major ethnic and racial groups, the economically disadvantaged, English-language learners, and students with disabilities — and make sure that they in particular were making enough progress toward the goal. So the biggest demands were placed on the groups that were farthest behind.

This is the aspect of the law from which the Obama administration is granting waivers. Instead of progressing toward a utopian 2014 in which all students are proficient, states may submit their own plans to the Obama administration and request a waiver. These plans may even set different goals for different racial groups, so long as the lowest-scoring groups are still expected to make the most progress. Some have complained that these alternative plans are not “colorblind” or that they fail to demand enough of low-achieving groups, and conservatives have correctly argued that the administration has used its waiver authority in effect to create a whole new policy (the administration grants the waivers based on whether states enact its preferred reforms). But at least the new system makes some concessions to reality.

One might wonder how such a terrible law managed to survive for a decade. The answer is that while NCLB takes a hard line on a superficial level, it gives states and schools plenty of room to game the system.

Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the law is that states are allowed to define “proficiency” for themselves and to revise their definitions at will. This isn’t a loophole; the law’s drafters made it perfectly clear that this is what they wanted: “Nothing in this part shall prohibit a State from revising, consistent with this section, any standard adopted under this part before or after the date of enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.”

Unsurprisingly, when forced to make progress on test scores or face the consequences, the states found a way to make progress: They made the tests easier. Over time, more and more students were deemed “proficient” by the state tests administered under NCLB — but the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed very little improvement. (One of Romney’s proposed NCLB reforms is to standardize a system for grading schools and districts that factors in NAEP results. He would also emphasize transparency rather than mandate school restructuring from the federal level.)

#page#And while NCLB included some requirements to reduce dropout rates, states were allowed to set their own goals, and the law’s test-score requirements gave schools an incentive to encourage low-achieving students to leave. A 2008 study of Texas, whose school reforms served as the model for NCLB, found that schools were jettisoning low-scoring students to increase their proficiency rates. (For example, schools would pressure students to drop out through “zero tolerance” policies, which send students to court for minor offenses, including non-attendance.) Schools even managed to fudge their dropout statistics by using “leaver codes” to classify dropouts as non-dropouts for various reasons (such as that the students claimed they would transfer to another district or get a GED at some point).

Also in 2008, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings decided to address this problem. She issued new rules that required schools to measure their dropout rates in a uniform manner and to submit plans for lowering their rates to the administration for approval. The new standardized rates were to become a factor in determining “adequate yearly progress” starting this year, but the Obama administration has been allowing a great deal of leeway on this as well for states that apply for waivers.

Sometimes the evasion of NCLB requirements can be physically harmful to students. One requirement is that states develop criteria for identifying “persistently dangerous schools” and allow students to transfer out of them. As criteria, states typically chose measures such as disciplinary actions for violent behavior.

The results have been predictable. About five years ago, my wife taught at a Bronx middle school whose administrators simply didn’t report serious infractions by students because they wanted the school to lose its “persistently dangerous” designation. The school also took advantage of the requirement that students be allowed to transfer away from violent environments: Administrators would call the parents of problematic students and explain this wonderful opportunity to them. And of course her school wasn’t unique: According to a federal audit, “States fear the political, social, and economic consequences of having schools designated as [persistently dangerous], and school administrators view the label as detrimental to their careers. Consequently, states set unreasonable definitions for [persistently dangerous schools] and schools have underreported violent incidents.”

While these are the biggest problems with NCLB, they hardly constitute an exhaustive list. For example, with its focus on mere “proficiency,” the law neglects students who are above average in ability — there is no insistence that smart kids get smarter, only that they pass basic tests like everyone else. By contrast, schools place a disproportionate emphasis on students who are just below the “proficiency” standard — goosing their scores is the easiest way to make a school look better. And the law’s emphasis on reading and math encourages schools to shortchange other subjects — to “narrow the curriculum.”

With NCLB up for reauthorization this year, there are several lessons for education reformers. An obvious one is that incentives matter: When schools are faced with the prospect of severe punishment unless they improve, they will find ways to “improve” however they can.

But a deeper one is that human beings vary in lots of ways, and while we can help every student to achieve, we can’t expect every student to be successful. If a student does not meet basic proficiency standards, it might be because he’s not being taught properly. Or it might be that he has a learning disability, or emotional problems, or a low IQ, or a troubled home environment. It might be that he just doesn’t care. We cannot count on the federal government to tell the difference, and with No Child Left Behind, it didn’t even try.

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