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NCLB Outrages

And the PPI Sell for NCLB Rolls On

Ohanian Comment: For more info on the Progressive Policy Institute, see


Recent news accounts are awash in lamentations about the No Child Left Behind law's peculiar habit of identifying schools as needing improvement even if they're "good schools" overall. Of course, that's the point -- the law wasn't called No Child Left Behind* (*except the poor, minority, and challenging ones).

NCLB is designed to seek out and identify sub-groups of students whose academic struggles are masked by high, or acceptable, overall school performance. Fairly and accurately communicating these issues and the law's requirements and purpose to parents and the public, while avoiding unfairly eroding confidence in public education, is a key challenge for state and local policymakers.

That is not to say NCLB is without problems. Some of the timelines are problematic because final enactment and drafting of the law were complicated due to 9-11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks on Senate office buildings. Right now the intersection between special education and NCLB appears to be vexing some states. In addition, a few states have chosen not to make use of NCLB's flexibility with regard to sub-group sizes, virtually guaranteeing high rates of schools identified as needing improvement merely because of statistical fluctuation.

Nonetheless, it seems as if a lot of the loudest griping about NCLB's accountability requirements is actually a proxy for larger educational debates about power, control, and pedagogy. During debate over the law most interest groups in Washington, D.C., said roughly the same thing: "Sure, put real accountability measures in place, but make sure there is enough money." Well, we're also all for more investment in education, both NCLB itself and complementary initiatives for pre-k education, teacher quality, and public school choice to help make it work. At the same time, it's hard to argue with a straight face that money is the only obstacle to successfully implementing NCLB. Yet, now that some real accountability is in place everyone is hollering about it. The NEA's policy on testing and accountability is illustrative on this point: apparently "accountability" is OK only so long as it's so Swiss-cheesed with loopholes, caveats, and exceptions as to render it virtually worthless from any sort of serious policymaking perspective.

The real challenge to NCLB is that, like most general interest reforms, it carries some selective costs and the people bearing them are organized and aggrieved. Two excellent articles on the issue are Alexander Russo's look at NCLB in Slate and Erik Robelen's Education Week article about state lists of schools "needing improvement." We think Russo overstates public discontent, but both articles offer nuance that is too often missing in much education coverage.

Further Reading:

"Flunking Out: Bush's Pet Education Bill is in Serious Trouble,"
Alexander Russo, Slate (08/28/03):

"State Reports on Progress Vary Widely,"
Erik Robelen, Education Week (09/03/03):

Implementing the No Child Left Behind Act,
PPI-National Center on Education and the Economy-Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Policy Forum (04/09/03):

NCLB Implementation
21st Century Schools Project Bulletin: Vol 3, No 17


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