Don’t Mourn, Organize!

Making lemonade from NCLB lemons

By Monty Neill

Illustrator: Stephen Kroninger

As the impact of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation continues to unfold across the country, educators and child advocates face the difficult task of explaining how NCLB hurts schools instead of helps them. NCLB is the current version of the longstanding federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first implemented in the 1960s.

Many education reformers, including FairTest, the group I work for, believe that NCLB is a fundamentally punitive law that uses flawed standardized tests to label schools as failures and punish them with counterproductive sanctions. It must be transformed into a supportive law that really promotes school improvement and makes good on the promise to leave no child behind. The legislation must be reconsidered and rewritten, particularly in the areas of assessment and accountability. But given the current political climate, this won’t be a simple task.

Educators and advocates concerned about this law need to do three things. We need to sharpen and popularize our critique of the law’s faults, develop a clear model for a new law, and build a powerful grassroots campaign that will persuade Congress to overhaul ESEA.

While opinion polls suggest most people know little about NCLB, key promises within the law have wide support. For example, the law authorizes the federal government to increase funding for the education of low-income students. It mandates that states eliminate the academic “achievement gap” that exists between different groups of students, paying particular attention to the progress of students who historically have not been well served. It also requires states, districts, and schools to find ways to educate all students successfully.

Such promises have played a key role in winning support for NCLB from some political and civil rights groups who do not share the Bush administration’s agenda of privatization and hostility to public education. Understandably, some child advocates and school reformers, long frustrated with the quality of education for poor students, viewed NCLB as a potential tool to force schools to improve. Clarifying the reasons why NCLB, as currently written, will be unable to fulfill its lofty promises is a key to building a coalition that can force Congress to make changes in the law.

Sharpening the Critique

In this critique I will focus on three fundamental problems with the law: underfunding, testing, and school improvement. (Several others, like the provisions on improving teacher quality and on promoting “scientific” approaches to reading also deserve attention, but are beyond the scope of this article.)

 Underfunding . NCLB’s unfunded mandate to eliminate all test-score gaps in 12 years assumes that schools by themselves can overcome the educational consequences of poverty and racism. Not only has the federal government failed to meet the social, economic, and health-related needs of many children, but NCLB itself does not authorize nearly enough funding to meet its new requirements. The Bush administration has sought almost no increase in ESEA expenditures for the coming year. The current education appropriations bill before Congress would underfund the already inadequate authorized spending levels by $8 billion. Meanwhile, states are suffering their worst budget crises since World War II and cutting education as well as the social programs needed by low-income people.

 Testing . The one-size-fits-all assessment requirements-annual testing in reading and math and periodic testing in science-and the accountability provisions attached to them are rigid, harmful, and ultimately unworkable. They will promote bad educational practices and deform curricula in significant ways. In the end, they will lower, not raise, standards for most students. For example, the assessment requirements will lead to further devaluing of non-tested subjects like social studies, music, and art. NCLB focuses on large-scale testing, which is a poor tool for diagnosing individual students’ needs and for assessing higher-order learning. The provisions of the law are turning large numbers of schools, particularly those serving low-income children, into test-prep programs. The testing regime punishes the teachers who choose to work in the nation’s most under-resourced schools and fosters the inaccurate view that most of the nation’s public schools are failing. In the end, NCLB will enforce lower standards, not high quality learning.

 School improvement. Estimates by groups such as the National Conference of State Legislators suggest some 70 percent of the nation’s schools will be declared “in need of improvement” before the decade is over and thus be subject to escalating sanctions. Florida reported that 87 percent of its schools and all of its districts failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) in 2002-03. NCLB’s punitive test-and-label approach to accountability is the foundation for an equally ineffective approach to school improvement. The first step toward improving schools, according to NCLB, is to allow parents to transfer their children to a school with higher test scores. But it does not guarantee that classroom seats will be available. In Chicago, 240,000 students are in schools “in need of improvement,” but the district says it has only 1035 spaces. In part, this is because a majority of Chicago schools are not making AYP. In districts where some schools are labeled “failing” and some are not, the new law may force increased class sizes by transferring students without creating new capacity. The Bush administration has said overcrowding does not matter. NCLB does not invest in building new schools in failing districts, nor does it make rich districts open their doors to students from poor districts. The transfer regulations are designed to manufacture a demand for alternative school placements and ultimately to transfer funds and students to profit-making private school corporations through vouchers. For those left behind, the next step is to “reconstitute” the school. Among the list of options in the law are to turn it into a charter school or privatize its management. These marketplace “solutions” to the difficult and complex problems of schooling will not improve the public school system, but may lead to dismantling it.


Any response to the punitive nature of the NCLB must be balanced by recognition that there is a genuine need for helpful school accountability, particularly for those schools that serve communities of color and economically disenfranchised families. Opposition to NCLB doesn’t mean opposing any and all forms of accountability. Rather, the law should be used to advocate for a way to develop genuine accountability that supports improved student learning and schools.

Advocates must work on several levels to move accountability beyond punitive tests and toward authentic forms of assessment that support teaching and learning practices that genuinely engage students. This can best be done at the school level through teachers and students collaborating with parents and communities to implement portfolios, exhibitions, student-led conferences, and other assessment strategies that promote real improvements in teaching and learning. Most importantly, teachers must use powerful “formative” assessments that can provide precise, useful feedback to each student. While this will be a difficult task in the face of high-stakes testing, there are schools and districts around the nation working in this direction.

On district and state levels, it can mean finding ways to use more authentic performance assessments that evaluate students on what they are capable of doing instead of how well they fill in a bubble sheet. The states of Maine and Nebraska are currently devising state assessment systems that will incorporate local assessments and minimize the role of state standardized testing. NCLB does allow such state assessment programs. By including local, particularly classroom-based data, much richer and more useful information will be included in accountability programs. While even these assessments can be misused in a wrong-headed accountability structure, they are worth exploring.

Ultimately, efforts at the local and state levels to make the best of a bad situation are unlikely to succeed unless Congress overhauls the federal law. Education reformers must work to amend ESEA or demand a new law that truly supports high-quality education for all. We must insist that federal and state governments provide equitable funding to all students. And we need a law that does not punish schools, educators, or students for problems they cannot resolve alone.

The law must change from one that relies primarily on standardized tests to one that encourages quality assessments and promotes better instructional practices in classrooms. Congress should cut back the amount of mandatory testing, prohibit the use of high-stakes testing for graduation or grade promotion, and encourage schools to focus on the use of multiple forms of assessment (as the law calls for but the Bush administration ignores). It should appropriate money to help teachers improve their classroom assessment practices.

Participatory democracy-local parents, educators, students, and other residents working together to make policy decisions about the school-should be at the heart of public school accountability systems. Ideally, information about student achievement would come primarily from student classroom work. This data would be combined with other important academic and non-academic information (including limited standardized testing) about schools to make decisions about school programs and student progress. Teachers and parents would collaborate to determine the areas on which to focus improvement efforts.

Similarly, there must be fundamental changes in NCLB’s sanctions and school improvement strategies. En-couraging parents and students to flee schools and closing some down will not improve education. At the same time, we need to accept that schools that have adequate resources and are not doing a good job even with extra support should not be allowed to continue to miseducate children.

Keeping pressure on low-performing schools will undoubtedly raise a vast array of thorny issues: Even if funding is not adequate, cannot many schools still do better? How much better? Can accountability procedures avoid blaming schools for things they do not control while holding them responsible for what they can do? At what point and with what evidence should decisions to intervene in a specific school be made? If inflexible numerical triggers lead to “interventions” that undermine real education, will the absence of such triggers allow schools, districts, and states to continue to miseducate some children? Is there a way to pressure states to foster real equity without scapegoating local schools and districts? What should the role of the federal government be in promoting school improvement, and how much money should the federal government be contributing to education?

We already know a lot about how to create socially supportive and intellectually engaging environments for teachers and students. It takes hard work and resources. School communities need to have unity around goals and teaching practices. And schools need quality teachers, adequate support staff, engaging multicultural curriculum, useful assessments, adequate planning time and staff development, significant parent involvement, small class sizes, quality before- and after-school programs, early childhood education, and quality leadership.

– illustration: STEPHEN KRONINGER

Building a Reform Campaign

If there’s any chance of changing this law in the next several years, we will have to build a powerful national alliance among education and civil rights organizations and strengthen our public engagement. Advocates can start by recognizing there is wide public concern around some key components of NCLB:

 The one-size-fits-all nature of testing.

 The unfairness of making decisions about individuals or schools based just on test scores.

 The danger of teaching to the test.

We can demonstrate that the choice between historically inadequate education and test-driven “reform” is a false choice because there are other, better options.

Several national education groups are already focusing on these issues. For example, the American Association of School Administrators opposed NCLB in Congress and continues to work for changes. The annual representative assembly of the National Education Association (NEA) passed a series of resolutions opposing high-stakes testing and calling for changes in NCLB. The organization has endorsed legislation that would reduce some of NCLB’s more harmful impacts. The NEA also is proposing a lawsuit against NCLB because it is an unfunded mandate.

But education organizations cannot do it alone. Individual teachers must take an active and prominent role in educating the public about the law and its negative impact. Public opinion surveys, such as the respected Phi Delta Kappan annual poll, conclude that teachers are the most respected voices in education.

Teachers can help mobilize the public to support change. Educators especially need to reach out to parents, who are likely to turn to teachers for information. Parents can speak credibly in public. In non-union states, where teachers who speak out can more easily be fired, the public role of parents may be more important. Because parents are only occasionally well-organized, educator groups may need to provide support to parents, while allowing parents to retain their autonomy.

Civil rights groups also can be a powerful force for changing NCLB. Some spoke out against NCLB when it was in Congress. Recently, the Children’s Defense Fund (the creators of the slogan, “leave no child behind”) has raised concerns about the overuse and misuse of tests in NCLB. The educational platforms of the National Conference of Black Legislators and the NAACP both oppose high-stakes testing for individuals and warn against teaching to the test. Few members of the Congres-sional Black and Hispanic Caucuses voted for the new law. Virtually all civil rights groups oppose privatization, and they call for increased funding and equity.

To be sure, the civil rights community remains somewhat divided on NCLB. Support from some civil rights activists, such as the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, was important to passage of NCLB. Some view the new federal law as a powerful step toward ensuring that states and districts address long-ignored educational needs that have led to weak education for many students. Sanctions, they say, are necessary to force action. High-stakes tests for schools and districts appear to guarantee some sort of results.

The members and constituencies of education and civil rights groups are the people most affected by NCLB and have the most to gain from changing the law. But a successful campaign will require overcoming what are, at times, very different perspectives on the use of tests in high-stakes school accountability.

Over the next few years, an ESEA reform alliance will have to work to resolve these differences. There will need to be intense discussions with not just the national leaders of education and civil rights groups, but with classroom teachers, parents, and community activists. A key question remains unanswered: How best should the federal government intervene to help build a school system that serves to build a multiracial democracy in this country?

NCLB is a time bomb ticking at the center of the public education system. Unless we want to find ourselves standing amidst the rubble, we need to get to work.

Monty Neill ( is the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge, Mass. See for more information.