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NCLB Outrages

Can No Child Left Behind be revamped?

Ohanian Comment: Finn notes: As President Bush's signature education measure comes up for reauthorization, there's perilously little agreement on what ails it and how to cure it. And then he makes his pitch for national standards and testing. Think DIBELS expanded.

By Chester E. Finn Jr.

Prospects for congressional bipartisanship for the renewal of No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's signature 2001 education law, are eroding.

House Education Committee Chairman George Miller and ranking Republican Buck McKeon appear to hold very different views (this month, anyway) as to what's wrong, what's right and what needs fixing, and how NCLB 2.0 should differ from the first iteration -- this despite Miller's stated intention to bring an NCLB reauthorization bill to the House floor next month.

Conventional wisdom holds that this landmark law cannot be revamped -- though it probably could be extended as is, just to keep the money flowing -- absent a fairly broad consensus.

Miller and Speaker Nancy Pelosi could indeed bring a bill before the House and possibly ram it through on a near-straight party-line vote (though such a move probably would provoke more Democratic defections than GOP supporters). But it would come unglued in the Senate, where it's essential nowadays to have 60 firm votes for anything controversial -- which this surely would be.

Congress these days is a near-to-dysfunctional institution. It accomplishes little of anything and less of importance.

Call me cynical after too many years inside the Beltway, but it appears that on any but the most routine matters, lawmakers now act only when at least one of three (overlapping) conditions is met -- and not always then: (1) There's a bona fide national crisis (such as 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina); (2) there's a huge public outcry; or (3) there's a full-fledged, Washington-style scandal needing redress.

NCLB satisfies none of those conditions.

Yes, a flock of educators, a pride of politicians and a bestiary of policy wonks are unhappy with it, but nobody could claim that a crisis exists. Most people still have scant awareness of it, and there's surely no clamor from the public at large. And it has no Washington-style scandal associated with it.

Sure, one could argue that the variability and slackness of state standards are an education scandals and that the unkept promise of public-school choice is a scandal. But that's not the same as saying that someone has walked off with the payroll or is profiteering at children's expense.

(To see a true, action-forcing scandal at work, observe what's been happening -- and what's been revealed -- about college student loans, which may finally lead to reauthorization, four years late, of the Higher Education Act.)

But congressional dysfunction isn't the whole story. There's also perilously little agreement on what ails NCLB and how to cure it.

Indeed, I submit that today there is near-consensus on precisely one point: the desirability of some sort of "growth model" for determining adequate yearly progress -- i.e. the proposition that schools' performance should be judged by examining the additional academic "value" that they add to their pupils rather than (or in addition to) the absolute number of kids reaching a single fixed standard.

Here, too, however, even if there's rough agreement at the conceptual level, widespread discord still prevails on just about every element of how growth models should be designed and implemented and how many places are capable of doing it.

Regarding other aspects of NCLB, there's no shortage of advice. A 5-foot shelf of books, studies, reports, commission recommendations, etc. is rapidly accumulating. (I plead guilty to having helped contribute half a linear foot or so.) Its very amplitude attests not only to the length and complexity of the law but also to the disputed nature of what exactly is awry in NCLB 1.0 and what the essential attributes of version 2.0 are.

Even more important, underlying all the technical specifics are four immense (my granddaughter would say "hunormous") problems that go to the heart of the matter:

Is NCLB's goal itself naïve and unrealistic? Politicians pledge that no child will be left behind, yet I don't know a single educator who seriously thinks that 100 percent of U.S. children can become "proficient" (according to any reasonable definition of that term) by 2014 in reading and math, as the law requires. Indeed, exemptions already have been made for seriously disabled youngsters.

In truth, getting American kids from their current 30 percent or so proficient level (using National Assessment of Educational Progress standards) to 70 or 80 percent would be a remarkable, nation-changing achievement. Yet I can't imagine lawmakers conceding that this would be worth doing. The first thing hurled back at them would be: "Which 20 percent of the kids don't matter to you?"

Is the program upside down? It's no surprise that we at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation think that NCLB 1.0 inverted a fundamental design principle: Congress opted to be tight with regard to means and loose with regard to ends -- trusting every state to set its own standards while micromanaging any number of measurement systems and highly prescriptive sequences of school and district interventions.

Far better to promulgate a single national standard and assessment system and then trust states, districts and educators to devise their own means of getting there on their own timetables. But half of Congress will recoil in horror from the freedom and flexibility implied therein, while the other half will be put off by uniform standards.

Is the architecture usable for this purpose? In 1965, it made sense -- indeed, it was practically inevitable -- for Uncle Sam to distribute his new education dollars via the traditional structures of state education departments and local school systems. Four decades later, however, the main focus of federal policy is altering the behavior and performance of those very institutions in ways they don't want to be altered (while also still distributing dollars to and through them).

It's beyond imagining that the old multi-tiered architecture can satisfactorily handle the new challenges. Yet nobody is thinking creatively about alternative structures by which NCLB's goals might more effectively be pursued.

Can the federal government successfully pull off anything as complex and ambitious as NCLB in so vast and loosely coupled a system as American K-12 education? Unfortunately, the executive branch is as dysfunctional as the legislative. It can't keep our levees strong, our bridges standing or our airplanes on schedule, much less provide healthcare to the needy or root out terrorists in our midst. Sure, we ask it to do too much, and we're terrible at prioritizing. That said, however, let's face the reality that education is even harder to change because it's so decentralized and so many of its street-level bureaucrats can ignore, veto or undermine the plans of distant rulemakers.

So long as these monster questions lack agreed-upon answers, I don't see much hope for an NCLB 2.0 that's markedly better than NCLB 1.0.

Chester E. Finn Jr. writes about education issues for The Education Gadfly, where a version of this essay appeared. www.edexcellence.net/institute/gadfly/ issue.cfm?id=303

— Chester E. Finn Jr.


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