The Agenda

Can NCLB Be Fixed?

Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond argue that the federal No Child Left Behind law can and should be fixed. The key thing is for the federal government to focus on the four areas where it can make a contribution and to stay out of everything else:

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually. Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable. However, No Child Left Behind also let states use statistical gimmicks to report performance. Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected. No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations — like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families — were doing. Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979. But efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement.

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines. The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

This does seem like a lean, minimal agenda that conservatives can get behind, at least for the first though one might conclude that the “19-point federal agenda” was a predictable result of any system of voluntary, competitive federal grants governed by political imperatives, e.g., the teacher buy-in provisions, etc.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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