Overhauling NCLB

It’s time to mobilize for an education law that actually improves schools

By Monty Neill

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

The federal law that is wreaking havoc on educational quality across the nation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is due for reauthorization by Congress in 2007. While many observers believe this will not be completed until after the 2008 presidential election, we need to begin mobilizing now to ensure that the next version of the longstanding Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a very different law in several critical regards.

The importance of changing the law can scarcely be overemphasized. While state laws and district practices have often promoted the same harmful policies as NCLB, the federal law has made such programs more onerous, adding more testing and layers of counterproductive “accountability” mandates. And NCLB has made it harder and less likely for states or districts to implement improved assessment and genuine school improvement programs. Over-hauling NCLB should be a political priority, not only for groups working at the national level, but also for local and state individuals and organizations, many of whom have potentially powerful ways to reach out to and influence members of Congress.

To ensure that the new ESEA provides positive assistance to low-income children and their schools, three key things are necessary: a clear, widely agreed-upon vision of what the law should be; an aroused, mobilized, and organized force to support change; and an understanding of the various positions in Congress and what it will take to produce major changes in the law. Each of these points could easily be a separate article, but after short comments on the first two points, I will focus on the third.

Five principles should guide thinking about a new law.

First, the goal should be high-quality teaching and learning to benefit the whole child, not drill-and-kill to artificially inflate scores on mostly multiple-choice tests in a few subjects.

Second, a new law should focus on the capacity of schools to improve, including adequate resources, professional development, and stronger parental involvement.

Third, any accountability structure must use multiple forms of evidence as the basis for making decisions, not just scores on standardized tests.

Fourth, sanctions must be a last resort and tailored to meet specific problems, not arbitrary actions using one-size-fits-all formulas. They should also be designed to build capacity for improvement, not to punish schools and districts.

Fifth, the new law should effectively empower educators, parents, and communities to work together collaboratively, rather than move decision-making responsibilities ever further from local communities. It should also include equity and civil rights protections to ensure that local empowerment does not mean the power to ignore low-income, racial minority, English-language learning, or disabled children.

The “Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB,” signed by 90 national education, civil rights, and religious organizations, outlines key components of what the new ESEA should include. The Forum on Educational Accountability is carrying on this work by developing more detailed proposals on capacity building, assessment, and accountability and by facilitating collaborative action among dozens of groups.

National groups will need to effectively mobilize their constituents to persuade members of Congress to revamp NCLB. This education and pressure could take multiple forms, as suggested in FairTest’s “Seven Ways to Work to Overhaul the Federal Education Law,” including holding public forums, passing resolutions, writing letters and op-eds, and meeting with members of Congress and state legislators.

Examining the Consensus

For a mobilized constituency to persuade Congress to pass a beneficial education law, it is vital to consider the thinking that underlay passage of NCLB in order to demonstrate that NCLB is not meeting its own goals. (After all, the main stated NCLB goal is a good one: “Ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”) It is also necessary to grasp the varying views of NCLB supporters in order to respond, where possible, to their needs, or to counter and isolate proposals that are harmful. (Among other things, proposals to expand testing, intensify sanctions, develop a national test, and promote privatization are likely.)

Two prominent, pro-NCLB conservative analysts, Frederick Hess and Michael Petrilli, have argued that since the late 1980s, presidents (Clinton and both Bushes) and Congress have forged a “Washington consensus” that revolves around three agreements:

First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.

This “consensus” sidesteps some major issues such as privatization while ignoring the harmful educational consequences of cheap, test-driven “reform” and ever-more-distant bureaucratic control over schools. However, because this consensus does exist in part, it is a useful tool for thinking about the “bipartisan” agreement supporting NLCB.

Hess and Petrilli argue that despite some strong opposition and very thin support among the public and especially among educators, this consensus is likely to hold in Congress. But they also worry that the consensus could fall apart: Bush is weakening, and Republi-can Congressional leadership has changed while the most conservative Republicans are balking at the intrusiveness of the law as well as its funding requirements. They conclude that the law’s survival may depend on Demo-crats, especially Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who helped craft NCLB and remain as party leaders of the relevant committees.

Historically, as the “Washington consensus” on education evolved, members of the black and Hispanic caucuses in the House opposed both a national test and much of NCLB. They don’t believe high-stakes testing, for example, leads to fair outcomes or improved schools. As NCLB was being considered in the House, white liberals and some conservative Republicans joined these caucus members in promoting amendments — such as eliminating the requirement to test in every grade 3–8 — that would have made NCLB far less onerous. Though support for such amendments was gaining quickly, time ran out.

Historical analysis suggests that pressure to change the law in fundamental ways will come from both the right and the left. Progressive educators are not likely to have much impact on Republicans, but could — in alliance with mainstream education, civil rights, and other groups — develop a push to change the views of key Democrats.

It is the white liberals who may be pivotal. Like Kennedy and Miller, many believe NCLB is a step forward in civil rights, though they decry the refusal of the Republicans to fully fund the law. Evidence to show the law is not working as they intended, pressure from civil rights groups, and strong alternatives could move more members of Congress toward different legislation.

What About the Gap?

It’s time to dismantle the intellectual and evidentiary underpinnings of the “Washington consensus.” The political heart of NCLB is its professed goal of closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Bush successfully marshaled rhetoric such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “which child would you leave behind?” to support NCLB and present Republicans as favoring equity. Meanwhile, many Democrats, led by Bill Clinton and many governors and members of Congress, accepted and promoted the unproven notion that standards-based, test-driven accountability would improve schools serving low-income children.

But the test-and-punish structure in NCLB will not overcome the systemic inequities of race and class, the real “gap.” While promoting educational equity is essential and should be the central focus of federal support, real progress will require more money and a shift away from the mania for “accountability.” The truth is that test-based accountability for schools is not effective at closing real opportunity and learning gaps.

Despite supporters’ claims that NCLB has led to tangible progress, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest only modest closure of score gaps in some subjects and grades and no change in others. As Jaekyung Lee of the Harvard Civil Rights Project has pointed out, racial gaps closed substantially for younger children from the 1970s into the late 1980s, mostly likely because of policies that attacked racism and poverty. As federal policy retreated from equity concerns, however, one result was that the score gaps widened. They began to close again in the late 1990s — but still not for high school students.

The primary narrowing has been in math. This is due to an intensified emphasis on math instruction. However, as educators are pressured to teach to state tests, NAEP gains appear to be mainly in rote learning, not conceptual understanding or problem-solving.

The price of the focus on accountability testing has been narrowed instruction in the tested subjects and increased focus on rote learning — what Jonathan Kozol has termed “cognitive decapitation.” It has also led to reduced instruction in history, art, and other subjects not included on high-stakes tests.

With no gains in NAEP at grade 12 for any racial group, with independent studies showing that high-stakes tests — including state graduation exams — don’t produce improved learning results but do increase dropout rates, it is becoming increasingly clear that the focus on high-stakes testing is an educational failure.

This Democrat-Republican alliance not only created the “Washington consensus” on testing, it fostered a public discussion in which schools are scapegoated. Congress must be challenged over the notion that schools alone can overcome the effects of racism and poverty. Reports by influential groups such as Education Trust claiming to have identified thousands of “high flying” schools — ones in which low-income kids score high — are misleading. Yes, there are many excellent schools and great educators accomplishing great things with low-income children. But as Designs for Change pointed out in a recent study of Chicago, echoing the work of educators such as Deborah Meier and Ann Cook, they do not succeed by turning their schools into test-prep programs.

We should learn from truly good schools. But if the federal government was serious about leaving no child behind, it would address low wages and unemployment; lack of good housing, medical care, and nutrition; community instability; and segregation by race and class. Because schools do have an important role to play, Congress should craft policies that put reasonable expectations on educational systems. Then it should focus support on strengthening beneficial practices to help schools meet them.

In the absence of rational policies and adequate funding to actually improve schools, the idea that “tough accountability” will induce sustained improvement is at best misguided and at worst a deliberate game to undermine educational quality, particularly for low-income children, and privatize public schooling.

Educators and activists must explain to those members of Congress willing to listen why NCLB cannot lead to equitable, high-quality education for all. They need to use emerging proposals to promote a strong, beneficial partnership among the levels of government. They need to engage in extensive public education and mobilization. And they need to create conditions in which those members of Congress who are not willing to consider reason and evidence understand that their tenure in office will be put at risk.


For more details on NCLB and its harmful consequences, see the FairTest website, www.fairtest.org, as well as articles in Rethinking Schools.

“Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB” is on the FairTest website and the Forum on Educational Accountability website, www.edaccountability.org.

“Seven Ways to Work to Overhaul the Federal Education Law (ESEA/NCLB)” is available at www.fairtest.org/nattest/Seven_Ways_To_Overhaul_NCLB.html.

Hess, F. M., and Petrilli, M. J. “Whither the Washington Consensus?” (American Enterprise Institute, 2006.) www.aei.org/include/pub_print.asp?pubID=24487.

Lee, Jaekyung. “Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps.” Harvard Civil Rights Project, 2006. www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/news/pressreleases/nclb_report06.php.

FairTest Examiner. August, 2006, August. “Harder to ‘Fly High’ than Ed Trust Claims” and “Teacher Quality Important, But Cannot Overcome Poverty,” both at www.fairtest.org/examinertoc.html. Summaries of Harvard Civil Rights Project and Design for Change reports are also in this issue.

Designs for Change. The Big Picture, 2006. www.designsforchange.org

Monty Neill (monty@fairtest.org) is executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, located in Cambridge, Mass.