The Politics of No Child Left Behind: Will the Coalition Hold?
Policymakers didn’t have any actual evidence that all students could be educated or that all schools could potentially excel--but they adopted it as a bedrock principle. Politically, the attraction of the NCLB consensus was that it allowed public officials to embrace high standards and champion equal opportunity without having to prescribe uncomfortable solutions or explain exactly what strategies would enable schools to succeed.
NCLB primarily sought to address the systemic and political challenges of the nation’s schools; it was designed to press state and local officials to make the hard choices needed to reinvent American education. The NCLB consensus rested on the premise that local education politics are fundamentally broken and that only strong, external pressure focused on student achievement will produce politics focused on school improvement, especially for poor and minority students. Having lived with the disappointing results of the efforts to promote accountability in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and frustrated by the tepid results wrought by decades of school reform, policymakers thought that high standards and meaningful sanctions were essential to changing “business as usual” schooling. They believed that school boards and superintendents would continue to be reluctant to upend dysfunctional routines or upset important constituencies, like teachers unions or affluent parents, unless pressed to do so. Ultimately, NCLB was intended to provide political cover to superintendents and school board members to encourage them to take controversial and difficult steps to root out mediocre teachers and administrators, shift resources to poorer schools, challenge collective bargaining provisions regulating teacher transfer and preventing efforts to link pay to teacher quality, and overhaul central office processes.
This “tough love” approach was not embraced only by Republicans. Robert Gordon (2005), an education advisor to Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry during the 2004 general election, argued in The New Republic, “at its heart, this is the sort of law liberals once dreamed about. . . . The law requires a form of affirmative action: states must show that minority and poor students are achieving proficiency like everyone else, or else provide remedies targeted to the schools those students attend.”
The core of NCLB, then, was based on the bipartisan premise that poverty could not be allowed to excuse school failure and that only external pressure will prod school systems to take the actions needed to improve achievement among poor and minority students. Whatever one thought of this consensus, it was a reality by the end of the 1990s. This approach prompted the accountability mechanisms at the heart of the law: the requirements for annual testing in reading and math, the determination of whether schools are making “adequate yearly progress” based on the disaggregation of test scores, and specified consequences for districts and schools that fail to reach state goals. Such provisions are likely to be tweaked when the law comes up for reauthorization (more on that below), and the extent to which they remain intact will rest on the degree to which the underlying consensus holds firm.
It is important to emphasize that the law was a splendid piece of bipartisan sausage-making. Though NCLB has come to be viewed as a “Bush” law--in no small part because the White House spent 2002 and 2003 claiming it as a major achievement while Democrats spent much of 2003 and 2004 backing away from it--the reality is that the final bill’s 681 finely printed pages were filled with a tangled assemblage of Bush administration proposals, New Democrat proposals drawn from reforms crafted during the Clinton administration, liberal ideas put forward by leading Democrats like Kennedy and Miller, and proposals and cautions introduced by countless other constituencies, all superimposed upon the ESEA template that had been growing and evolving since the 1960s. Consequently, if NCLB remains intact, it will be less a conservative or Republican victory than one for the Washington consensus.
Critiquing the "Washington Consensus"
Some critics, especially educators, have long disputed the validity of the Washington consensus and are skeptical of NCLB’s expectations and its assumptions regarding school improvement. In early 2005, Nel Noddings, the president of the National Academy of Education and a faculty member at Columbia University’s Teachers College, penned a very public attack on No Child Left Behind in the pages of Education Week. In many ways, Noddings’s essay summarized the complaints voiced by the law’s critics. Noddings wrote, “My thesis is simple: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bad law, and a bad law is not made better by fully funding it.” She explained, “The law employs a view of motivation that many of us in education find objectionable. As educators, we would not use threats, punishments, and pernicious comparisons to ‘motivate’ our students. But that is how the No Child Left Behind law treats the school establishment.” Noddings argued:
Anti-testing crusader Alfie Kohn argued back in January 2001, just days after the initial White House plan was unveiled, “The people who understand how kids learn are appalled at this. This is horrendous, simplistic, test-driven reform” (Melendez and Deller, 2001, p.1). In a more scholarly but equally devastating appraisal, Harvard University education professor Richard F. Elmore (2002) declared: “Never, I think, in the history of federal education policy has the disconnect between policy and practice been so evident, and possibly never so dangerous. What’s particularly strange and ironic is that conservative Republicans control the White House and the House of Representatives, and they sponsored the single largest--and the single most damaging--expansion of federal power over the nation’s education system in history” (p. 31).
Criticism of NCLB came from the right as well as the left. In a 2005 policy report issued by the libertarian Cato Institute, former U.S. Department of Education staff member Lawrence Uzzell (2005) attacked NCLB for
Have these attacks, and the uproar from state legislatures across the nation, succeeded--at least in raising public doubts about the law? Like most pieces of sweeping and compromise-filled legislation, NCLB elicits mixed reactions. Parents and voters tend to endorse its goals while expressing concerns about its means. Not surprisingly, public opinion on NCLB is mixed.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS) reported in 2005 that 45% of adults held a favorable view of NCLB and 38% held an unfavorable one, figures that were almost identical to the views of parents with children in school. Among those who had strong views, opinions were evenly split, with 19% of all adults holding a strongly favorable opinion and 21% a strongly unfavorable one. The ETS also reported what it termed a “worrisome . . . disconnect” between the views of adults, on one hand, and teachers, on the other. While most adults were had mixed feelings about the law, 75% of high school teachers viewed it unfavorably and just 19% viewed it favorably. Moreover, 50% of high school teachers held a strongly unfavorable opinion and just 2% held a strongly favorable one (Hart and Winston, 2005).
A 2004 poll by the Public Education Network (PEN) found that the percentage of voters who favor the law declined slightly between 2003 and 2004, from 40% to 36%. During that time, meanwhile, the percentage of respondents opposed to the law increased from 8% in 2003 to 28% in 2004 (Public Education Network, 2004). Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup polling reported the most negative sentiment on NCLB, with the poll’s authors concluding, “The NCLB strategies are frequently out of step with approaches favored by the public” (Rose and Gallup, 2005, p. 43). Though the survey did not ask a general “favorable/unfavorable” question on NCLB, the PDK/Gallup effort found that 68% of respondents thought that student performance on a single test is not an adequate indicator of school success (Rose and Gallup, 2005, p. 50). PDK/Gallup also reported that 80% of respondents felt that reading and math test results do not generate an adequate picture of school quality; 82% that basing school quality on reading and math tests will take attention away from art, music, and history; and 79% that, if their child’s school were identified as “in need of improvement,” they would prefer to have additional improvement efforts made within the school over transferring their child to a “non-needs improvement” school (Rose and Gallup, 2005, p. 50). Such results suggest a lack of broad public support for many of the elements of NCLB. It’s worth noting, though, that NCLB proponents have critiqued the relevance of the PDK/Gallup polling by making the case that the law does not rely on a “single test” and suggesting that the questions and findings of the PDK/Gallup poll are misleading and biased.
Whatever the merits of the technical debate, the PDK/Gallup findings do reveal an important tension when it comes to public feelings regarding accountability. We have long known that almost all adults endorse public school accountability in the abstract but are often uncomfortable with the specific testing provisions and sanctions that are required to construct an effective accountability system (Hess, 2003).
In short, Americans feel about NCLB the way they feel about most far-reaching federal legislation: they affirm the overall goals but realize that the devil is in the details. In the abstract, the public is supportive of efforts to hold educators accountable for student learning. When it comes to the practical realities of implementing NCLB, however, voters have been less enthusiastic--and surveys suggest that teachers have been quite critical. Nonetheless, while certain popular press accounts about lawsuits, high-profile complaints, or incidents of state resistance sometimes paint a picture of widespread dissatisfaction, the reality is that public opinion several years after the passage of NCLB is still evolving. To the extent that members of the public have made up their minds, the results suggest a fuzzy picture that has morphed as NCLB implementation has proceeded.
What's Ahead for NCLB?
We return to our original question: will the NCLB coalition hold? Particularly, will the law’s central accountability requirements be eviscerated when the law is reauthorized in 2007? There is some reason to expect that the coalition will hold and that sweeping changes will be forestalled, for three primary reasons.
First, though the education community has been scathing in its attacks on NCLB, and though many state legislatures have condemned the law, these arguments do not appear to have decisively turned public opinion. Public opinion remains generally favorable on accountability, mixed on NCLB, and somewhat confused about the law’s particulars. Such mixed views give members of Congress much room to maneuver, and the sentiment on Capitol Hill seems to be that embracing high standards and NCLB’s accountability efforts is both the right thing to do and the safest course. Members of Congress may hear voices of concern from their constituents--especially educators--but the message they report hearing is, “mend it, don’t end it.”
Second, glimmerings of consensus on likely “refinements” are emerging, and these have tended toward the modest rather than the dramatic. For instance, one of the oft-mentioned critiques of the law is that its “achievement level” accountability system looks at a snapshot in time rather than students’ progress over the course of an academic year, disadvantaging schools with a lot of children who are starting out far behind. In response, Secretary Margaret Spellings has announced a pilot project to allow a handful of states to adopt “value-added” accountability systems; it appears likely that such an approach will be adopted by Congress in the reauthorization, addressing one of the law’s key shortcomings (and one of critics’ strongest arguments). So long as there remains a centrist consensus for the principles of NCLB, it will be difficult for legislators to call for drastic change without leaving themselves open to charges that they are “anti-accountability” or that they don’t believe all children can learn.
That brings us to the final and most important consideration. To date, we believe that the “Washington consensus,” positing that poverty is no excuse for poor student achievement and that only external accountability will push schools and districts to make tough changes needed to improve, remains largely intact. This is true not only within the Bush administration, but also among key Democratic allies like Representative Miller and in the leadership of influential activist groups like the Education Trust. There’s no reason to believe that these core convictions, which took root more than a decade ago during the Clinton administration’s struggles to improve schooling, will be shaken anytime soon. For all the criticism right and left, there are few signs that anyone able to marshal significant numbers of votes will be pushing for fundamentally overhauling the law. Meanwhile, facing the prospect of being publicly attacked by the Bush administration, groups like the Education Trust, and those superintendents and education officials who have stood behind NCLB may dissuade even skeptical lawmakers from championing radical change.
Of course, political support is only the beginning. Federal statutes seldom succeed in changing behavior through good intentions or powerful rhetoric. When they work, it’s generally because they are sensibly designed, resonate with voters, and make measured use of mandates and incentives. Scholars in the 1970s explained the surprisingly dispiriting results of heralded Great Society programs by pointing out that Washington’s money, expertise, and exhortations are often overmatched by real-world complexities. Whether No Child Left Behind proves another such sobering lesson, or a happier tale, is not yet clear. Forty years after the unsatisfying results of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a bipartisan coalition crafted an ambitious new commitment to educational opportunity. Whether this effort will enjoy the support needed to see it through remains to be seen, though the short-term prognosis seems more favorable than the headlines suggest.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. Michael J. Petrilli is a scholar at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
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Whither the Washington Consensus?
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