Beyond NCLB

By Monty Neill

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

With more pressing issues on its agenda and no consensus about how to proceed, Congress probably will delay the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) until after this November’s elections. The outcome of those contests might create significant political shifts that would affect any new version of the widely criticized federal education law.

Many organizations that have long sought changes in the law are taking advantage of the delay to begin thinking more deeply about what alterations are necessary if the federal government is to play a positive role in improving public schools. When first considering reauthorization, soon after President Bush signed NCLB, these groups recognized that the political environment limited the extent of possible changes. Thus they developed their recommendations within the NCLB framework of standards, tests, and consequences (a framework initiated by the 1994 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA).

Examples of this include the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, now signed by 143 national education, civil rights, religious, disability, parent, labor, and civic organizations, and the proposals by the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, which I chair) based on the Statement. These push for fewer but richer state assessments complemented by school-based assessments and multiple indicators of learning and teaching. They argue for establishing rational expectations to replace the impossible demand that all students score proficient by 2014, and call for conceptions of accountability that include implementing improvement processes such as high-quality professional development, not just outcome data. The groups propose a focus on assistance to replace NCLB’s emphasis on sanctions. Taken together, these changes would markedly improve NCLB. But they only indirectly address whether the federal role in education should be structured primarily around standards, assessments, and consequences.

Over the past few years, public dissatisfaction with NCLB has become ever more visible, as indicated by polls and the shifting positions of politicians who originally supported the law. Meanwhile, paltry results — slowing increases in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example — combined with the narrowing of curriculum and instruction make clear that major changes to NCLB are vitally necessary.

Progressive educators in particular have sharply criticized NCLB for encouraging the reduction of schooling to test prep. However, a comprehensive proposal to overhaul the federal law to meet the requirements of progressive education, civil rights, and social justice has not fully emerged. If the federal role is to be helpful and not harmful, we need such a proposal, backed by significant social sectors mobilized to win in Congress.

One place to start is to unpack the notion of the “achievement gap.” That “gap” usually is defined as different standardized test scores by different racial groups, a definition that assumes scoring highly on a test indicates a person has met state standards and is, in turn, well educated. Some standards advocates have conceived of them as being flexible, allowing variation, and emphasizing the ability to think and apply knowledge. In practice, however, “standards” means standardization — one size to fit all — via standardized tests. In no state do these tests indicate an ability to engage in higher order thinking.

The threat of sanctions, coupled with the use of “interim” or “benchmark” tests — periodic mini-tests designed to predict performance on the big test — and scripted curricula, has pushed schools populated with low-income students increasingly toward becoming test preparation programs. The well-documented consequences of massive teaching to low-level tests include narrowing the content covered in tested subjects and squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, guaranteeing that many graduates lack knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college or be effective citizens.

When policy focuses on the “achievement gap” and thus on test scores, it mostly ignores the importance of inputs and processes — that is, the resources available to a school and the educational approaches and experiences within it. Defenders of this approach argue with some justification that the nation has paid too little attention to outcomes, to what children actually learn in school. They also claim that attention to outcomes would lead people to focus on changing curriculum and teaching to improve student learning.

One fundamental problem of this approach has been defining outcomes as test scores. Another is that attention to the quality of resources and teaching is inadequate. NCLB authorizes extra funding for schools deemed “in need of improvement,” but the actual support is minimal. In fact, mandated expenditures on transportation and supplemental services reduce the funds available to most of the children in a “failing” school.

Further, study after study has made it clear that nonschool factors, poverty in particular, overwhelm what most schools can do. Michael Winerip summed up a recent Educational Testing Service study in his New York Timescolumn: Just four family factors explain most of the difference in outcomes. They are the percentage of children living with one parent, the percentage of 8th graders absent from school at least three times a month, the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of 8th graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. A decade or so ago another study similarly found a handful of factors explained most of the state differences in NAEP results.

Gloria Ladson-Billings uses the term “education debt” — the lack of adequate educational opportunity accumulating since slavery and segregation — rather than “achievement gap.” The education debt includes the school-based debt. It also includes the housing debt (such as the racial covenants that ensured African Americans could not move to many suburbs after World War II), the medical care debt (pervasive historical and current unequal access to medical care by race and class), the employment debt (African American families earn three-fifths of what white families earn, while U.S. income inequality grows rapidly), and on and on.

When the “standards” approach gained sway in the 1990s, some policymakers at least recognized that the country couldn’t focus on “results” without also focusing on resources and teaching — what was termed “opportunity-to-learn” standards. A very weak version of them appeared in President Clinton’s education reform law, but the Gingrich gang promptly gutted even that when they took over Congress. The consequences are no functional standards and no real accountability for providing resources schools need. Yet schools continue to be attacked for failing to accomplish what they have not been given the resources to accomplish. When teachers and principals try to meet the irrational demands of NCLB (and parallel state requirements) by focusing more intensely on the tests, they are then criticized by Education Trust and similar groups for teaching to the test.

In sum, the narrow focus on test scores has facilitated endless scapegoating of educators for the deep social failure to address conditions in schools and more broadly in society that overwhelmingly influence learning outcomes. Rather than address the education debt, policymakers and the media focus on the achievement gap — the “failure” of schools to produce equal test scores despite historical and current unequal inputs and opportunities.

To the extent language shapes thinking and policy, the nation needs a different language, one that emphasizes the educational debt rather than the achievement gap. Discussion must shift from a fixation on the supposed “motivation” problems of educators to an analysis of the capacities schools must have to fully serve all their children; from outcomes defined as test scores to the education of the whole child. The country must change the conversation from passing tests to teaching and learning.

More than language, the nation needs policies that redefine the proper role of the federal government as assisting schools to improve themselves. In that context, significantly more funding is a minimum requirement since Title I now serves only about half the nation’s eligible children.

In addition to pushing for more funding, educators, civil rights groups, parents and communities must unite on a few key principles for structuring the version of ESEA that will replace NCLB. To further that discussion, here are some brief proposals.

First, a new law would establish that the primary purpose of federal funding is to facilitate school improvement. This would replace test-based accountability as the primary approach, though accountability for improvement processes and ultimately for results would be part of the structure.

Second, the law would recognize that the heart of improvement is school-based collaboration among educators to build their capacity to serve all children well. Thus, a significant share of Title I funds, particularly for schoolwide programs, would be allocated to pay for time for educators to work together on curriculum, instruction, assessment, evaluating student needs and how to meet them, and related core activities. That is, federal funds would be used to help schools become communities of learners, both adults and students. A portion of those funds could be used by the local educators to employ outside expertise.

Third, Title I funding would be used to strengthen the capacity of districts and states to assist schools, which should be their main function. These higher administrative levels often have imposed requirements, monitored compliance, and engaged in forms of centralized control over teaching and learning that are counterproductive. Even if they try to provide useful support, they tend not to have the resources to do very much. This must change. Much of this assistance might be to encourage more successful schools helping less successful neighbors serving similar populations, as Designs for Change has proposed for Chicago.

Fourth, the federal government would fund a series of ancillary activities all aimed at supporting this core approach. That can include developing new curricula or assessments, creating banks of useful performance assessment tasks, and developing opportunity-to-learn indexes that reveal the degree of equity in key components of learning (faculty, libraries, buildings, technology) and in the communities that schools serve.

Fifth, the federal government would support more extensive research. For example, it could fund a new version of NAEP that would rely entirely on extended performance tasks to indicate whether students had learned and are able to apply key concepts in core subjects.

Lastly, a new law would restructure accountability. Title I schools should be expected to develop, implement, evaluate, and revise improvement plans. Inability to implement such plans, or inability to make reasonable progress (given inputs and assistance) as indicated by multiple forms of evidence of student learning, should lead to stronger interventions.

Clearly, this is just a beginning. For example, I’ve not addressed how the federal government can improve Title III, the portion of ESEA aimed at helping English language learners. Nor have I discussed the vital importance of strong parent involvement in schools. And I have not proposed adequate means through which the federal government can persuade, leverage, or pressure states into ensuring all their schools have sufficient resources to provide students with a high-quality education.

Nevertheless, this approach does several necessary things. It makes locally controlled improvement efforts central, thereby empowering those who actually teach. It removes the educationally destructive focus on high-stakes testing, while retaining meaningful accountability. It provides a vehicle for shifting discussion from a test-based language of achievement gaps to a language that focuses on overcoming the education debt. And it provides impetus for public discussions about the aims and nature of education, discussions that can displace the current corporate-dominated discourse that has brought us high-stakes testing, educator disempowerment, narrowed learning, and declining democracy in and around our schools.


The Joint Statement and FEA materials are on the FairTest website ( and at Thanks to FEA participants for informative discussions on what the new federal law should be.

For the debate over standards, see Deborah Meier (ed.), Will Standards Save Public Education? (Beacon, 2000); and Meier’s ongoing dialog with Diane Ravitch (

Education debt, see Ladson-Billings’ 2006 AERA presidential address, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools” (

Nebraska state and local assessment; 
( ) and see “Chicago School Reform: Lessons for the Nation” ( ExecSum2007.html)

Monty Neill is deputy director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in Cambridge, Mass.;