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NCLB Outrages

To Glimpse NCLB's Future, Look to the Past

At the second anniversary of NCLB, it is useful to think about the historical evolution of the law that NCLB is meant to reform—Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Media coverage of all the unresolved problems of NCLB's design and implementation may engender a shortsightedness. An historical comparison with ESEA Title I circa 1965 makes me believe that a long-run evolutionary view of NCLB is needed.

I was the second program person hired by the U.S. Office of Education Title I Director in 1965. Also, in 1980, Dick Jung and I conducted a 13-year longitudinal evaluation of that program's implementation. (EEPA, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1980) To be sure, NCLB is pupil-outcomes oriented, while Title I focused on inputs, yet the analogy has promise.

In 1965-68, there was evidence of several major operational failures in Title I implementation, but these were mostly fixed over time, through several federal legislative reauthorization cycles and with increased enforcement by state and local Title I coordinators. For example, in the early years not enough Title I money was spent by local districts in the most poverty-stricken schools, or on special Title I interventions. Massive sums were diverted to regular programs or wasted on frivolous extras. In Louisiana, Title I funds built segregated high school swimming pools; Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin rented tuxedos for students to attend the senior prom. Several states did not even send Title I federal or state regulations and guidelines to local school districts to utilize. And the program as a whole included too many pupils to mount a serious intervention program at the classroom level.

In fact, Jung and I found that it took more than a decade to target funds to disadvantaged pupils and create school site intervention programs that met the legal intent of Title I. We concluded that:

1. Given the wide variety of groups responsible for setting and implementing policies concerning Title I—and the decentralized, politically charged bureaucratic setting in which those policies took shape—changes to local Title I administrative procedures were incremental, not immediate.

2. Over time, however, these incremental changes eventually yielded significant structural and substantive changes in Title I implementation policies and practices.

3. The direction of these changes over the long haul was toward a more aggressive federal rule-setting, monitoring, and enforcement role in implementing some of the program's crucial categorical requirements, and increased compliance with key provisions in the law.

4. Multiple factors affected the pace and directions of these changes, including:

a. a political atmosphere dominated by professional education lobbies shifted to one in which interest groups—including categorical program personnel, beneficiaries of Title I services, and lobby groups championing the recipients' causes—were more oriented toward compliance with federal mandates;
b. the emergence of a vertical network of administrative, evaluative, and teaching specialists with careers that depended upon the program;
c. broad-based social movements that reinforced the philosophy behind Title I.

The lesson of Title I from the 1960s and 1970s is that we should give NCLB a long time before making final judgments about its effectiveness. Growing pains and problems are to be expected with such an ambitious and complex law, and as we gather feedback from local and state education officials and solid information about its classroom implementation and pupil impact, Congress will likely move to adjust the law. This was the case with Title I, which was passed by the Johnson administration, but in 1969 the Nixon administration vowed to clean up the administrative mess, and did so in a bipartisan effort that included Democratic Senator Walter Mondale.

One factor that may complicate the effort to smooth out the bumps of implementing NCLB is the lack of state and local support that gradually helped Title I meet its legislative intent. Title I had parent site councils and a cadre of federal, state, and local administrators on the federal payroll who worked to ensure fidelity to the federal intent. These Title I coordinators were more loyal to the federal law than to local politics.

By contrast, a recent national survey published in Education Week (12/19/03) indicates that half of school principals "expressed the view that [NCLB] was either politically motivated or aimed at undermining schools." Many local superintendents feel the same way. Title I never had this kind of grass-roots resistance to its basic provisions, so some new tactics seem warranted for NCLB. Perhaps NCLB needs to create the bottom-up parental constituency that was so effective for Title I. Moreover, Title I implementation was supported by an amalgam of interest groups from the legal, educational, religious, and social sectors. Some of the lobbying, technical assistance, and other advocacy processes by these special-focused pressure groups was underwritten and encouraged by such organizations as the Ford Foundation and the Harvard Center for Law and Education.

Will NCLB engender this kind of interest group base outside of Washington D.C.? It is unlikely that traditional professional education interest groups such as National Education Association, American Association of School Administrators, or National School Boards Association will lobby to preserve NCLB or press for its effective implementation. (These groups wanted to turn Title I into a general aid program.) But the hopeful lesson from Title I's past is that, if one takes the long view, NCLB implementation will likely improve.

NCLB analysts need to follow the law for at least a decade, and resolve major methodological questions:

1. What NCLB explanatory and dependent factors should be traced across time? How is variation in these variables described?
2. What kinds of evidence should be used?
3. How is such evidence best analyzed?
4. What political and administrative coalitions support and resist the law's basic principles, and how does this change over time?

Michael W. Kirst is professor of education at Stanford University.

— Michael W. Kirst
Education Gadfly


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