Nailing down specifics on 'No Child'
Petrilli is provocative and
seemingly reasonable, but watch out: This is
an argument for rigorous nationwide (not
federal) standards and tests.
by Michael J. Petrilli
Education is the neglected stepchild of this
year's presidential race - very likely because
the candidates are correctly reading the
electorate. A recent poll found that only 1
percent of registered voters identified
education as the issue most important to them.
Yes, they've got plenty else on their minds.
Still, it's a stunning change from 2000 when,
during a time of peace and prosperity, school
reform made it to the top of the nation's
One of the most significant outcomes of that
election was bipartisan passage of President
Bush's No Child Left Behind Act - a
controversial law that is now overdue for
renewal. Both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack
Obama have promised to make changes to it,
though each has been coy about the specific
fixes he would propose.
That's not too surprising, either. NCLB is
hugely unpopular with the bases of both
political parties, with teacher unions
abhorring its focus on test scores and
conservatives ruing its expansion of federal
powers. In the face of this widespread buyers'
remorse, both candidates have been careful not
to offer any specifics that would alienate key
But no such reticence is an option once Mr.
McCain or Mr. Obama becomes president. Nor is
NCLB going away. This massive statute houses
most of the major federal programs in
elementary-secondary education, as well as some
$25 billion per annum in federal education aid.
To move any school-reform initiative forward,
indeed to do anything significant in K-12
education, the new president and Congress will
have to update NCLB. And that means finding a
That's plainly true for Mr. McCain, who would
face a Democratic Congress. But Mr. Obama, too,
will have to make a deal. Because so many
members of his own party are loath to buck the
unions, he will need to find Republican votes
in order to get any NCLB reauthorization
What could such a compromise entail? The best
feature of NCLB is the transparency it has
created around school performance. Because of
annual testing in math and reading, and the
reporting of test results for sub-groups as
well as entire schools, communities now have
tons more information with which to gauge their
schools' effectiveness. The worst feature of
NCLB is its heavyhandedness, labeling schools
as failures even if just a handful of students
perform poorly on state tests - and spelling
out in excruciating detail the year-to-year
cascade of sanctions that are supposed to be
imposed on such schools.
How could the next president and Congress keep
the good while getting rid of the bad? They
should turn NCLB on its head, making it tight
where today it's far too loose while loosening
the parts that today are excessively tight.
Right now, NCLB micromanages the formula and
timelines by which schools are labeled and
sanctioned, yet it allows states total
discretion over the academic standards and
tests used to judge schools (and kids) in the
first place. These should be flipped. Provide
incentives for states to sign up for rigorous
nationwide (not federal) standards and tests.
Make the results of this testing publicly
available, sliced every which way by school and
group. But then allow states and districts (or
private entities, such as GreatSchools.net) to
devise their own school labels and ratings -
and let them decide what to do with schools
that need help.
This will enable parents, policy-makers, and
taxpayers to compare schools in an apples-to-
apples manner, across state lines, but will
also empower states and communities to take the
driver's seat again when it comes to
determining which schools need help and how to
This solution won't please everyone. Some
reformers will worry that, without stern
mandates from Washington, some states will fail
to hold troubled schools accountable. Some
conservatives will complain about "national"
testing. And some union leaders will still
chafe at the transparency of school results and
the possibility of tying student performance to
But reasonable people on all sides of the issue
will see that this approach is better aligned
with Uncle Sam's skill set. After all,
Washington is at least three or four steps
removed from the operation of local schools.
There's only so much policy-makers can do from
Capitol Hill and the federal Education
Department, whatever their intentions. It would
be far better for the feds to focus on making
school standards explicit and results
transparent, and then allow the states,
communities and expert educators to focus on
how to reform schools that aren't making the
grade. It might even remove some of the buyers'
remorse that has come to be associated with
Michael J. Petrilli, a former Bush
administration official in the U.S. Department
of Education, is vice president for national
programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham
Michael J. Petrilli
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES