Not Worthy of a Passing Grade: The No Child Left Behind Act
New Haven, CT - The Commission on No Child Left Behind does not tell America what it really needs to know: Is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) working? If it isn't working, will it succeed by the 2014 deadline? The answers to both of these questions, unfortunately, are no.
Beyond NCLB, the title of the Commission's report issued last month, would be more accurately titled Bolstering NCLB. The report is a defense of the Act against its critics. It is filled with anecdotes about NCLB success stories, and its recommendations are structured within-not beyond-the framework of the existing law. Because Beyond NCLB is aimed at shoring up the Act, the important questions are not asked or answered.
The commissioners state, "there is growing evidence that NCLB is producing some results where it counts: in improved student achievement." But the test results included in the report show that student scores increased more before NCLB was implemented in 2002, not after it. This finding raises the possibility that NCLB might be inhibiting student achievement instead of increasing it. An evaluation of NCLB by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University concludes that so far NCLB has not significantly improved test scores or reduced racial achievement gaps.
Given NCLB's underwhelming performance, is 100 percent proficiency on exams by 2014 attainable? The answer to this question appears in a startling table on page 69 of the report which the commissioners do not discuss. The table shows how many states are expected to reach 100 percent proficiency by the deadline. For elementary school students in reading, only seven out of the twenty-one states analyzed are expected to make it. These are the highest results listed in the table. For elementary school students in math and for middle school students in both reading and math, the prognosis is worse. There is no way that we will achieve 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014.
Many people who care about improving American education want to save NCLB. It is rare for an administration to do more than merely talk about improving education, and never before has the country focused on the real problem of the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Many people probably believe that it would be a shame to lose this unique opportunity for national educational reform. But what is the point of saving legislation that is not working and that is fundamentally flawed?
The problem with NCLB is that out of the smorgasbord of educational reforms, the Bush Administration selected the ones which suit its conservative ideology best, not the ones that educational researchers have shown to be most likely to succeed and produce the biggest achievement gains.
NCLB's heart is an accountability-based reform, but this type of reform has a weak track record. A review of accountability reforms published in the American Journal of Education last year concluded that NCLB's chances were "neutral at best." Why is such a monumental educational initiative centered on one of the least promising policies?
An effective national educational reform program should begin by expanding pre-kindergarten programs like the successful one now operating in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This program has produced significant gains for Hispanic and black children. There is a large body of research showing the benefits of quality early childhood education.
The commissioners agree and state that "half of the white-African American achievement gap in 12th grade can be explained by the gaps in achievement in 1st grade." NCLB, however, does little in the area of early childhood education. Because the commissioners are trapped within the NCLB framework, they too marginalize the issue of early childhood education and relegate their discussion of it to one-third of the last chapter of their report.
Given that perhaps 50 percent of racial achievement gaps are due to differences in early childhood education, how can an educational reform dedicated to eliminating racial achievement gaps not make early childhood education one of its major components? A real assessment of NCLB would point out that the Act has ignored highly effective reforms like early childhood education, reducing class sizes, small schools and school integration in favor of something that is "neutral at best."
While there are some good recommendations in Beyond NCLB, the authors are mainly trapped by the flawed assumptions and biases of the Act. If we really want to leave no child behind, we have to get beyond NCLB and the Commission's report also.
Lee Bailey's Eur Web
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES