Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

A Bet on No Child Left Behind

This was written by Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit organization created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. His books are must-reads. This appeared on the institute̢۪s website.

This is a MUST read--especially for anybody who thinks the changes to NCLB are anything but a disaster.

By Richard Rothstein

Diane Ravitch is a glass half-empty kind of gal, while I suffer from excessive
Panglossian tendencies. In the spring of 2007, we made a bet. The payoff is dinner
at the River Cafe, at the foot of Brooklyn Heights, overlooking New York harbor and
the Manhattan skyline, tucked neatly under the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Four and a half years ago, we surveyed the damage being done to American education
by NCLB, the No Child Left Behind iteration of the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act:

  • conversion of struggling elementary schools into test-prep factories;

  • narrowing of curriculum so that disadvantaged children who most need enrichment
    would be denied lessons in social studies, the sciences, the arts and music, even
    recess and exercise, so that every available minute of the school day could be
    devoted to drill for tests of basic skills in math and reading;

  • demoralization of the best teachers, now prohibited from engaging children in
    discovery and instead required to follow pre-set instructional scripts aligned with
    low-quality tests;

  • and the boredom and terror of young children who no longer looked forward to
    school but instead anticipated another day of rote exercises and practice testing
    designed to increase scores by a point or two.

  • Diane morosely predicted that, despite this evident disaster, NCLB would certainly
    be reauthorized with its destructive testing and accountability provisions intact.
    After all, she moaned, it had the support of elites from both parties, the
    Washington think tanks, the big foundations, and the editorial boards of The New
    York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential media outlets. No serious
    opposition was visible. How could the law not be continued? Indeed, she worried, its
    supporters were so removed from the reality of classrooms, so impervious to
    evidence, they could well decide to intensify requirements that schools chase phony
    test score gains to the exclusion of all else.

    I smugly responded, "not a chance." The NCLB accountability system is so
    self-evidently calamitous that its principles will never survive congressional
    reauthorization. Don't pay attention to elite opinion, I said. The internal
    contradictions of a law that orders all children nationwide to perform above-average
    are so explosive that any attempts to "fix" them (as policymakers were then vowing
    to do) would never be able to claim a congressional majority, no matter how
    obstinate NCLB's supporters might be.

    For example, I said to Diane, consider the law's absurd demand to prohibit the
    normal variability of human ability so that all children, from the unusually gifted
    to the mentally retarded, must achieve above the same "challenging" level of
    proficiency by 2014. The only way states could fulfill this requirement would be to
    define "challenging proficiency" at such a low level that even the least talented of
    students could meet it. NCLB enthusiasts would then cry "foul" and insist that a
    reauthorized law allow Congress to dictate a national proficiency standard.

    But this, in turn, would make the law unacceptable to supporters who had gone along
    in 2002 only because they felt assured that federal intrusion into state control of
    education would be limited. Or if, instead, NCLB proponents attempted to mollify
    critics by giving schools more flexibility -- for example, by permitting them to
    escape condemnation for not meeting impossible academic benchmarks by citing other
    measures, like attendance rates or parent satisfaction -- the NCLB enthusiasts would
    balk at this backdoor way of "leaving children behind."

    There is no way out of this impasse, I assured Diane. NCLB will limp along past its
    2007 expiration date, with no possible map for reauthorization, with temporary
    annual continuing resolutions while proponents fruitlessly attempt to conceive of
    ways to climb out of the holes into which they had dug themselves.

    Eventually, I told Diane, by 2016, we'll still be requiring all children to be
    proficient by 2014, and declaring virtually every school in the country to be
    failing. At some point, I predicted, some secretary of education would have no
    choice but to issue waivers from the law's requirements to every state in the
    country while the law itself remained on the books, an embarrassing monument to
    policy foolishness.

    Everything I predicted has now come to pass, and I should be able to call Diane's
    hand and collect my dinner at the River Café. But I'm afraid I must concede. I won
    the bet on technical points, but Diane won on the merits. The glass really is
    half-empty, maybe more so.

    What I had not anticipated was that a secretary of education (Arne Duncan, it turned
    out to be) would use his authority to grant waivers to states (now all of them)
    unable to meet NCLB's requirements, conditioning the waivers on states' agreements
    to adopt accountability conditions that are even more absurd, more unworkable, more
    fanciful than those in the law itself. Mr. Duncan̢۪s philosophy has been revealed: if
    a policy fails, the solution should be to do more of it.

    So the secretary is now kicking the ball down the road. States will be excused from
    making all children proficient by 2014 if they agree instead to make all children
    "college-ready" by 2020. If NCLB's testing obsession didn't suffice to distinguish
    good schools from failing ones, states can be excused from loss of funds if they
    instead use student test scores to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Without
    any reauthorization of NCLB, Mr. Duncan will now use his waiver authority to demand,
    in effect, even more test-prep, more drill, more unbalanced curricula, more
    misidentification of success and failure, more demoralization of good teachers, and
    more needless stress for young children.

    The Obama administration is presenting its waiver proposal as the grant of new
    "flexibility" to states. Yes, perhaps. If states agree to implement Mr. Duncan̢۪s
    favored reforms of evaluating teachers by student test scores and expanding charter
    schools, and if states promise to meet even more impossible "college ready"
    standards established by the federal government, the secretary will let them figure
    out on their own how to do it.

    Some Republicans have complained. The secretary, they say, cannot do an end run
    around Congress by implementing his own more extreme version of No Child Left
    Behind, when he has been unsuccessful in getting Congress to enact these very same
    proposals into the law itself.

    But these critics, most of whom supported NCLB in 2002, have only themselves to
    blame. They initially wrote into the law the right of a secretary to issue waivers
    based only on his or her own personal fantasies about what constitutes a state
    pledge to increase (sic) the quality of instruction and improve academic achievement
    – to be precise, in NCLB’s Title IX, Part D, Sections 9401(b)(1)(i) and (ii).

    And Arne Duncan has gotten away with this before. Here, Democrats should be ashamed.
    In February 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the ARRA, or
    "stimulus" bill) was enacted, Republicans charged that the law had little to do with
    job creation or economic growth, but was only a subterfuge for the Obama
    administration to make social policy without congressional debate.

    Mostly, the Republican charge had no merit but in the case of education policy, it
    hits the mark. The secretary has been distributing more than $4 billion in ARRA
    grants only to states that entered and won his Race to the Top competition by
    promising to raise standards even higher than those unachievable under NCLB.

    These so-called stimulus funds are not distributed to states with the highest
    unemployment rates but to those that outbid others by promising to establish data
    systems to evaluate teachers based on students̢۪ math and reading scores, be most
    ruthless in firing teachers and principals in schools with low scores, and replace
    them with the most rapid expansion of charter schools.

    The Duncan policies, like NCLB, will eventually implode. But the damage being done
    to American public education has now gone on for so long that it will have enduring
    effects. Schools will not soon be able to implement a holistic education to
    disadvantaged children. Disillusioned and demoralized teachers who have abandoned
    the profession or have retired are now being rapidly replaced by a new generation of
    drill sergeants, well-trained in the techniques of "data-driven instruction." This
    cannot easily be undone.

    Some state education officials have murmured intents to refuse the Duncan waiver
    conditions, and dare him then to withhold federal education dollars. But there is
    little indication that these officials will follow through, or that others will join
    the resistance. Most states will meekly apply for the Duncan waivers. Courage is in
    short supply among education and policy leaders.

    So Diane, start perusing the menu. My victory on points is to no avail. I owe you

    — Richard Rothstein
    Washington Post Answer Sheet





    This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.