Can NCLB Be Left Behind?

Reauthorization could bring 'damage control' or more damage

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Toles © 2007 The Washington Post

Illustration: Toles
© 2007 The Washington Post

The hulking mess that is the No Child Left Behind law is due for reauthorization this year and if pro-NCLB forces get their way, teachers, students, and schools will have many more years of ever-increasing tests and sanctions.

Because pro-NCLB forces currently appear to have the upper political hand in Congress, some fear a fast-track reauthorization that leaves the law largely unchanged — if not worse.

Teachers overwhelmingly dislike NCLB. Many school boards and state legislatures are also unhappy with the law’s rigid and punitive mandates. While Washington politicians have largely ignored grassroots views, there are signs of change. First, a number of representatives elected in November campaigned on an anti-NCLB platform. Second, 10 Democratic senators sent a letter Feb. 15 to the education committee, criticizing NCLB’s inflexible requirements.

Led by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the senators wrote: “We have concluded that the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind in their current form are unsustainable and must be overhauled significantly during the reauthorization process.”

Right now, it is anybody’s guess how quickly reauthorization will proceed. Some observers say it could become embroiled in Washington and presidential politics, and postponed until after the 2008 elections.

“Congressional leadership, the Bush administration and big business are lined up behind largely keeping NCLB the way it is and/or expanding it,” notes Monty Neill, a leading organizer for the Forum on Educational Accountability, which is emerging as the main progressive coalition working on NCLB. “But if there is enough opposition, it won’t pass this year. That throws a lot into question, so that perhaps a better law could emerge after the presidential elections — depending on who wins.”

The political complexities swirling around NCLB include the following:

  • Despite the law’s unpopularity outside the Beltway, Bush considers NCLB one of his top domestic and bipartisan successes. The Administration wants to expand it, in particular to add science tests, increase testing in high school, and bolster charter and private school voucher components.
  • Key Democrats such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who head the educational committees which must approve reauthorization, are opposed to further privatization but don’t have big problems with other aspects of NCLB. They mostly want more money for implementation of its tests and sanctions.
  • The business community (as represented by the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) supports NCLB, thus increasing the pressure on centrist Democrats to reauthorize NCLB as an example of the Democrats’ “can do” attitude toward “getting things done.”
  • An influential bipartisan panel, the Aspen Institute’s Commission on NCLB, released a series of recommendations in February that some have called NCLB on steroids. Among other things, the recommendations call for firing teachers in Title I schools on the basis of “value-added” standardized test scores.
  • Most civil rights groups are critical of NCLB, especially its measures that disproportionately punish poor schools with students of color. But several support the act, particularly its purported focus on closing achievement gaps. Parent and community groups are similarly critical of the law’s impact, but committed to some of its rhetorical goals.
  • Progressive forces and education groups are calling for significant changes but it’s unclear how much political muscle they will bring to the table. Finding a balance between limiting NCLB’s damage and promoting positive alternatives has made crafting a reform agenda complicated.
  • Influential conservatives such as Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation would like to ratchet up NCLB and are calling for a national curriculum and national standards. They face stiff resistance from others on the right, including evangelicals and libertarians who have always been suspicious of federal involvement in education.

Illustration: Toles
© 2007 The Washington Post

The ESEA and the Origins of NCLB

The NCLB is the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). First passed in 1965, the ESEA targeted federal dollars to low-income students through Title I funds; it was later expanded to include programs such as bilingual education.

President George W. Bush transformed ESEA when he came to office, leading a bipartisan reauthorization that used concern over the academic achievement gap to launch a multi-pronged effort of increased standardized testing, mandates for “adequate yearly progress” (AYP), and ever-more onerous sanctions for schools not meeting what almost all educators agree are unrealistic benchmarks of progress.

The ESEA has only been reauthorized a handful of times; before NCLB, which passed in 2002, the previous reauthorization was in 1994. Thus whatever is in the current reauthorization will likely remain in effect for at least five years, and quite possibly longer.

Because NCLB is Bush’s rhetorically skillful but educationally bankrupt moniker for the decades-old ESEA, there is often confusion. As a result, some have started referring to “the ESEA reauthorization,” to make clear that they oppose the NCLB but do not want to abandon a federal role in education reform, especially for urban schools that rely on federal dollars for essential programs.

Organizing for progressive alternatives to NCLB is being led by the Forum on Educational Accountability, and by early February more than 100 national organizations had signed the Forum’s statement. The Forum calls for “fundamental changes” in NCLB, in particular the law’s focus on standardized testing, its over-identification of schools in need of improvement, and its reliance on punitive sanctions. At the same time, the forum is crafting alternatives, such as multiple measures of achievement, that would speak to widespread and undeniable concerns about educational quality, especially in urban schools.

Signers range from education organizations such as FairTest, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Association for Bilingual Education; to religious groups such as the Episcopal church and the National Council of churches; to civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and League of United Latin American Citizens; to national advocacy groups such as The Children’s Defense fund and the Children’s Aid Society.

“We recognize that there is going to be a reauthorization for the ESEA,” notes Neill. “The question is, how many of the destructive components of NCLB can we remove, and what positive beneficial things could be put in the law that would help improve schools.”

The 3.2 million-member NEA is part of the Forum but is also spearheading its own initiative, based on an agenda approved at the NEA’s Representative Assembly of almost 10,000 teachers last summer.

“The core of the NEA alternatives is to replace test and punishment with ways to make schools better, particularly focusing on professional development and stronger parent involvement,” Joel Packer, who is overseeing the NEA’s efforts on NCLB, told Rethinking Schools.

The NEA has highlighted three aspects of the current law that must be changed. The first is modifying NCLB’s definition of a “highly qualified teacher,” so that veteran teachers will not lose their jobs. The second involves promoting multiple assessments in determining student and school progress. And the third would allow greater flexibility in determining how a school is classified as “in need of improvement.”

At the same time, the NEA — as well as the Forum and other progressive organizations — supports the continued release of disaggregated racial data as a way to keep focus on the importance of closing the achievement gap.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has historically supported a standards and testing agenda and which was a big proponent of NCLB when it first passed, now highlights “flaws in the law.” The extent of its criticism is unclear, however, and overall the 1.3 million-member union has played a low-key role around NCLB.

Grassroots Petition

At a more grassroots level, the newly formed Educator Roundtable has launched an internet-based petition that calls for dismantling NCLB. The petition asks legislators to vote against reauthorization because “the law is too destructive to salvage.” As an alternative, it calls for “state-level dialogues led by working educators.”

The petition campaign has tapped into the sprawling and often passionate opposition to the law’s impact on schools and children. Organizers say that 25,000 people had signed the petition as of mid-February. The group also plans to hold dialogues at the state level, according to Philip Kovacs, an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who is chair of the Roundtable. Other nationally known Roundtable supporters include writer Susan Ohanian and Kenneth Goodman, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona.

At this point, relations are strained between the Roundtable and some other opponents of NCLB. Kovacs, for instance, has made several public comments highly critical of the NEA. Summarizing his concerns, he told Rethinking Schools that the union “doesn’t fight hard enough against standardization and privatization” and uses “corporate” terms such as “accountability, standardization, and performance.”

The NEA, in turn, has told its state affiliates not to sign the Roundtable petition because it runs counter to the NEA’s agenda of promoting alternatives, and calls for repealing NCLB without making clear what that means for ESEA.

“On the substantive changes they want, we are probably 90 percent plus in agreement,” Packer said. “But when they say repeal and don’t have any alternatives except state-level dialogues, that’s not useful in engaging Congress.”

Some hope that the grassroots energy of groups such as the Roundtable can be fused with the lobbying impact of national organizations to push the reauthorization debate to focus on improving rather than punishing public schools.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate the seriousness of the NCLB threat — and how difficult, at best, it will be to make changes as it wends through reauthorization,” notes Neill. “Everyone concerned about public schools needs to work together on this.”

Barbara Miner, a Milwaukee-based journalist, is a regular contributor and columnist for Rethinking Schools.