NCLB Stalled, but Still Armed and Dangerous

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

George Miller is not making adequate yearly progress. Neither is Ted Kennedy.

As a result, reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has been left behind, at least for now. Last month, Rep. Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the two main Democratic co-sponsors of the original legislation and the key congressional committee chairs pushing for its renewal, conceded that the prospects of passing a reauthorization bill in 2007 had faded. Prospects for 2008 are not looking good either.

But while the bipartisan consensus that passed NCLB in 2001 has fragmented, the old, unimproved version of the law is not going away anytime soon, and a better one is nowhere on the horizon. This means NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to education reform will continue to abuse schools across the country, and its impact will worsen as increasingly unreachable test score targets and more drastic penalties kick in.

The law technically expired on Sept. 30, but was automatically renewed for one year. Congressional committee work on House and Senate bills will continue and efforts may still be made to move a reauthorization bill next year. But election-year politics makes passage unlikely.

This means the existing law is likely to be in place for at least several more years. Based on NCLB’s track record so far, the consequences will be uniformly negative:

  • Thousands more schools will be sanctioned for failing to make adequate yearly progress. The number identified for the law’s more drastic sanctions, including “restructuring” and closure, will far exceed the capacity to respond effectively.
  • A host of unproven “interventions” for schools deemed “in need of improvement” will sow chaos, feed privatization schemes, and further erode support for public education.
  • The curriculum will continue to narrow to what is poorly tested by multiple-choice questions.
  • Special needs students and English language learners will be subjected to more federally mandated educational malpractice, including test-driven standardized instruction that ignores the very special needs that gave rise to these categories.
  • Parents will continue to be pitted against teachers in a politicized “blame game” for school and student “failure” that is wrongly defined and inadequately addressed.
  • Tens of millions of dollars in public funds will be siphoned off by publishers of standardized tests and curriculum materials, private educational management firms, and barely regulated supplemental educational service providers.
  • Academic achievement gaps, and the multiple inequities in opportunity and resources that they reflect, will remain far beyond the reach of NCLB’s punitive, privatizing approach to school reform.

The law’s many contradictions will sharpen as the deadline nears for meeting NCLB’s central mandate that 100 percent of all students achieve proficiency on state tests by 2014. There are numerous reasons that this dubious goal will not be met, some that expose the law’s fundamental lack of reality or fairness. For example, the subgroup of English language learners (ELL) is made up of students who have not yet learned the language the tests are given in. When they learn it, they’re no longer in the group. So the prospects that the ELL subgroup will ever be 100 percent proficient on state tests is, by definition, non-existent. There are many other examples of how NCLB sets up schools to fail.

As the Boston-based advocacy group FairTest noted, “The real problem is that the goal that all children will score proficient in 2014 is totally arbitrary, lacks any evidence of feasibility, and therefore produces educationally questionable and harmful responses by those who bear the brunt of the sanctions.”

During the first six years of NCLB implementation, many schools, states, and districts avoided sanctions for missing their adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets by employing a variety of maneuvers: lowering the passing scores on state tests, changing the minimum size of subgroups to exclude certain scores (such as special education students), and projecting exaggerated test score progress as the 2014 deadline approaches (a “balloon mortgage” approach to AYP).

Over the next several years, most of these gimmicks will have run their course. The remaining students not passing the tests will be less susceptible to quick-fix test-prep “solutions,” while the AYP benchmarks will steadily rise to levels that no real schools have ever met. The longer the NCLB testing regime remains in place as is, the more schools it will trap. A review by Fair-Test of studies in 11 states projected that most will eventually see failure rates in the 80 percent to 100 percent range.

Providing safety valves for this increasing pressure was a major aim of numerous reauthorization proposals. Reforming the AYP system with “growth models” and more flexible formulas would not have fundamentally changed it. But it would have partially addressed concerns that the NCLB dragnet was over-identifying “schools in need of improvement.” With reauthorization bogged down, this won’t happen any time soon. (However, we can expect more regulatory sleight-of-hand from the U.S. Department of Education, which has shown a tendency to issue regulations that allow more privileged and more racially homogeneous suburban districts and schools to avoid sanctions, while more diverse urban ones are flagged for penalties.)

Reforming the AYP system was just one of many thorny reauthorization issues that complicated congressional deal-making. Six years of partisan battles over funding levels eroded the basic bargain Democrats contended they had entered into with Bush, linking significant increases in federal education spending to increased testing and “accountability” mandates. (Kennedy claims Bush came up $56 billion short of his promises.) Midterm elections also brought some candidates who had campaigned against NCLB back to a Democratically controlled Congress. Massive grassroots pushback from their members and congressional flirtations with merit pay schemes weakened support for the law within the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. A FairTest-led coalition of nearly 150 civil rights, religious, and education groups pressing for radical revision of the law undercut the illusion, nourished by the Washington-based Education Trust, that the civil rights community stood solidly behind NCLB.

On the Republican side, a weakened President Bush couldn’t keep his own party members from breaking ranks. Last spring, 65 Republican Congress members signed a petition supporting the right of states to opt out of NCLB without losing federal funding. Scandals over the Education Department’s handling of “Reading First” contracts and direct payments to selected media outlets to shill for the law added a taint of corruption to what was regularly misrepresented as Bush’s “most successful” domestic accomplishment. With Bush setting his own benchmarks for failure and declining popularity, conservative support for the law eroded.

But as noted above, the stalled effort to reauthorize NCLB is a mixed bag. While congressional prospects for turning NCLB from a test-and-punish law into a credible school improvement measure were never very good, leaving NCLB in place as it exists is no solution either. The Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce, which stood firm for renewal of NCLB in its current form, don’t yet have the reauthorization they wanted, but the status quo remains intact and that is not good for public education.

The impasse sheds light on a larger issue. In almost every area of federal policy, successive Reagan/Bush Administrations, aided and abetted by Clinton-style neo-liberal Democrats, have put in place regressive legislative and regulatory policy frameworks. From the imperial conduct of foreign policy to the erosion of basic civil liberties and human rights, to the systematic dismantling of the regulatory agencies designed to protect everything from food safety to forest lands, antisocial, pro-privatization frameworks are now deeply embedded in federal policy and practice.

NCLB is one of these policy frameworks. It reflects a fundamental shift in federal policy that has dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. Historically, federal education policy-in an area that has always been primarily a state and local responsibility-was designed to promote access and equity, for example, through school integration, financial aid for poor schools, and programs for special needs students. Under Bush and No Child Left Behind, the goals of access and equity have been superceded by federal mandates to promote test-driven, top-down “standards and accountability” on every school and district in the country.

For Bush and company, this is a thinly veiled plan to systematically discredit and privatize public education. But despite the primary inspired bashing of NCLB by Democratic presidential candidates, most congressional Democrats, themselves nourished on years of business roundtables and governors’ education summits, have also drunk the standards and testing “Kool-Aid.” They have been full partners and enablers of the mainstream marriage between test-based “accountability” and punitive sanctions. The Democrats have also largely abandoned the commitments to equal opportunity that once framed federal education policy, at least rhetorically.

As bilingual education advocate James Crawford has written, “Despite its stated goals, the No Child Left Behind law represents a diminished vision of civil rights. Educational equity is reduced to equalizing test scores. The effect has been to impoverish the educational experience of minority students-that is, to reinforce the two-tier system of public schools that civil rights advocates once challenged.”

Uprooting neo-liberal policy frameworks, like NCLB, will take much more than replacing Bush with a Democratic president. Much as the massive sentiment against the Iraq war was enough to give Democrats control of Congress but so far not enough to force them to do anything very useful with it, the train wreck that is NCLB can’t be avoided if the parties in power remain on the same track.

Stan Karp is a Rethinking Schools editor.