Editorial: Back to the Drawing Board for NCLB

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Illustration: Randall Enos

On Nov. 8, one day after midterm elections nourished hopes that the Bush administration’s disastrous policies of war, hate, lies, and greed might be derailed — or at least restrained — the president met the press. In the clumsy and inarticulate style that has become his trademark, Bush sought to regain his shaky political footing by outlining some goals for the next Congress:

I have learned that, you know, if you focus on the big picture — which in this case is our nation — and issues we need to work together on, you can get stuff done. For example, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act is going to come up for reauthorization. There’s an area where we must work together for the sake of our children and for the sake of a competitive America. And I believe we can get a lot done.

If you care about public schools, watch out. If the president and Con-gress work together in the next two years to get more of the kind of “stuff done” on federal education policy that they have since Bush took office, things will get worse — not better — for public education.

As debate opens on reauthorizing NCLB, it’s worth remembering that this very bad piece of legislation was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support the last time Democrats controlled the Senate. Here are some things Congress and Bush have “gotten done” through NCLB in the past five years:

  • They have turned the mania for standardized testing, which was already running high at the local and state levels, into a full-fledged, national plague. When NCLB was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do. More than 45 million tests annually. Next year science tests will be added. Eleven million more tests. These tests are polluting curriculum, promoting bad instruction, driving teachers and students crazy, and making a few large publishing companies rich. They are not improving schools or helping children.
  • They have institutionalized a fraudulent “accountability” system that uses achievement gaps to label schools as failures without providing the support and resources needed to overcome them. NCLB’s main effect has been to create a systematic impression of failure and undermine support for public education. Last year, more than 25,000 schools, more than a quarter of all public schools, failed to meet their mandated test score targets. The number will increase as yearly benchmarks rise toward the inappropriate and fanciful goal of 100 percent proficiency on state tests for all students, including English language learners (ELLs) and special-needs students, by 2014.
  • They are punishing schools that don’t meet NCLB’s ridiculous test targets with sanctions — like transfers and supplemental tutoring — that hurt the poorest schools and districts most. These sanctions have no record of success as school improvement strategies, and in fact, many are not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to bring a kind of market reform to public education.
  • They have failed to provide enough money to pay for all the tests NCLB mandates, let alone the massive increases in educational programs it would take to help kids pass them. NCLB spends too much money on the wrong things, like tests and scripted curriculum packages, and too little on the right ones, like reducing class size and improving teacher preparation.
  • They have miseducated a generation of teachers who have entered the profession since the passage of the law. Pressured by principals, peers, and media, too many new teachers have been indoctrinated with the notion that scripted, test-driven pedagogy is the best way to help children learn. Unless these practices end soon, the consequences will be felt in classrooms for years to come.
  • They have moved school power away from teachers, classrooms, schools, and local districts, and put it in the hands of state and national politicians and bureaucracies. NCLB is replacing the federal government’s historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education with a wrongheaded, top-down attempt to drive education policy at all levels down a one-way street paved with standardized tests.

This is a record that needs to be reversed, not “reauthorized.” Realistically, NCLB is not going to be repealed. Beneath the euphemistic political label, NCLB is just the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a 1960s-era reform package that combines the major federal education programs, including Title I, the single largest federal program designed to help schools with large concentrations of impoverished students. The nation needs an expanded federal role in education and many programs authorized by NCLB/ ESEA need to be sustained and improved. The real task will be to transform NCLB from a “test and punish” law into a credible reform effort that provides urgently needed resources to tackle complicated issues of educational inequality, school accountability, and school improvement.

This means keeping the focus on achievement gaps and educational inequality, while replacing the one-size-fits-all testing and the privatizing sanctions with strategies that actually help schools improve. The attention to educational inequality — the disaggregating of achievement data, the spotlight on underserved populations, the rhetorical commitment to leaving no child behind — remain the broadest sources of NCLB’s political support. But like the rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberation” used to cover the occupation of Iraq, the rhetoric of equality has been used to justify policies that have precisely opposite effects. That needs to change, or little else will.

During the reauthorization debate, there will be many suggestions for specific changes in NCLB. Rethinking Schools will continue to provide analysis and discussion of these issues. But the broad outlines of the debate are already in focus. Education advocates will pursue two tracks: proposals to limit the damage that NCLB is now doing to schools and districts, and alternative reforms that might actually achieve positive goals. As the coalition that originally backed NCLB continues to fragment, there will also be more proposals from the right to extend voucher and privatization initiatives. In the “center” will remain both Democratic and Republican defenders of NCLB’s testing regime, and their corporate and business sponsors, insisting that the law as currently constituted remains a positive program for schools despite mounting evidence to the contrary. (Education Week recently reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable “formed a coalition with other business groups to protect [NCLB] from major changes.”)

But this landscape is very different from the one that originally produced NCLB. Bush has been weakened by political defeat and lame duck status. Five years of growing opposition to NCLB mandates from states and local districts will feed pressure on Democrats to loosen the law’s most rigid formulas, particularly the educational malpractice that NCLB imposes on ELL and special education students. The new crop of senators and representatives includes many who campaigned against NCLB, like the freshman congressman from Minnesota, Tim Walz, a former high school teacher, who declared, “No Child Left Behind… started a national dialogue on our public education system. However, the benefit of this dialogue appears to be completely destroyed by the uneven, bureaucratic nightmare created by NCLB, which harms the students and schools who need it most.”

Such voices raise hopes that the reauthorization battle will, to some degree, tame the beast that NCLB has become. Despite all the complicated details, when the smoke clears it won’t be hard to tell who won. Success will mean dramatically less federally mandated testing; an end to the test-and-punish links between test scores, scripted curriculum, and privatizing sanctions; and reforms that move resources and authority closer to schools and classrooms and away from bureaucrats and market reformers. Anything less will fail our schools and our children.