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NCLB Outrages

True and False


December 21, 2003

It seems that no one in the Bush administration fully reckoned with the consequences of this vast and ambitious campaign. The news media have seized on humiliating instances of failure. The public, once so supportive, is plainly having second thoughts. And the more liberal of the Democratic presidential candidates have the bit between their teeth. I am speaking, of course, of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

Fourth graders aren't actually dying from excess testing, of course, so you haven't read quite as much about these casualties as you have about the others, but there is no mistaking the shift in prospects and in mood. States are increasingly complaining that they cannot meet the ambitious targets set by the law either for student improvement or for the hiring of qualified teachers. A recent analysis by The New York Times revealed that the Houston school system, the poster child for standardized testing, had improved far less than advertised (though schools had, in fact, improved). And this summer's annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of public attitudes toward schooling found that two-thirds of respondents feared that the new emphasis on tests would lead to ''teaching to the test'' and that three-fifths felt that this would be bad. How long will it be before we learn that top administration officials always knew the law was based on faulty intelligence?

As a qualified enthusiast of No Child Left Behind, or what the cognoscenti call N.C.L.B., I am hoping that these setbacks will nudge the discussion in a healthier direction rather than persuade the administration to cut and run. Certainly the discussion could use some nudging. The usually woolly school-reform debate seems to have boiled down to ''more tests'' versus ''more money.'' President Bush, who came into office having presided over the so-called Texas miracle, has often given the impression that if you just stop coddling those school kids, they'll begin reading and ciphering like nobody's business. The opponents have been every bit as reductive, if more wrongheaded. Bob Chase, the former president of the National Education Association, roundly declared that standardized tests will remain ''fraudulent'' as long as inner-city kids ''attend schools with crumbling facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequate resources.''

More tests versus more money is the definition of a sterile debate, and in fact it was the manifest failure of tens of billions of dollars of federal spending on the schools to make any measurable dent on learning that opened the way for bipartisan agreement on N.C.L.B., which among other things required states to stipulate academic standards in English and math and to devise tests to measure progress according to those standards and then hold schools accountable for children's performance on those tests. But with no obvious successes yet to show for the new standards regime and some embarrassing predicaments -- states where virtually every school is judged to be ''failing'' -- Democrats have begun to revert to type. Both Wesley Clark and Howard Dean, neither of whom had to vote on the bill, have castigated N.C.L.B. as a futile exercise in punishment.

But threats can be very effective, at least when aimed not at children but at schools, school systems and states that have happily tolerated failure for decades. And in any case, the new law, and the standards movement generally, can't fairly be reduced to threats. Standards and tests are meaningless without each other, and states that have registered real gains in student performance, like North Carolina and even Texas, have done so by matching tests to clear standards -- if not, as yet, very rigorous ones. And it's worth noting that these states have not made the giant investments in physical plant or class size that the critics consider indispensable. If those expenditures are, in fact, so important, you'd have to wonder how it is we've doubled per capita spending on the schools over the last 30 years without having any noticeable effect on test scores.

There is one point, however, at which standards, money and No Child Left Behind converge. N.C.L.B. requires all teachers to be ''highly qualified'' by 2006. A highly qualified teacher is one who is not merely certified in, but truly conversant with, his or her subject matter. Research bears out the common-sense assumption that well-educated teachers are more effective than poorly educated ones -- a lot more effective, in fact. But those well-educated young people do not go into public school teaching unless they are exceptionally self-sacrificing, and even those admirable few eventually gravitate to the comfortable suburban schools that need them least. Both conservatives like Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of ''No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,'' and liberals like Matthew Miller, author of ''The 2% Solution,'' agree that we must pay significantly more money in order to bring talented teachers to the neediest schools. Miller, in fact, would double the salaries of the most effective. And in this regard the No Child Left Behind Act truly is an unfinanced mandate, for it offers almost no money to help schools hire these teachers.

We are going to hear more about N.C.L.B. as the presidential race heats up next year. I herewith propose a pre-emptive compromise. Liberal Democrats and teachers' unions and school professionals should stop trying to prove that No Child Left Behind is a failure and should stop pretending that money is the cure for everything; Republicans should accept that money does, however, matter terribly if you wish to attract the kind of teachers who can make a difference. The law itself should be subjected to the kind of tinkering that incredibly complicated legislation generally requires. And then, perhaps, we could practice some real nation building at home.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the magazine.

New York Times Magazine


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