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NCLB Outrages

2010: The Year of the Tiger, and the Year of the Reauthorization?

The next phase of education reform doesn't need a federal law that's even more prescriptive, more punitive, and more far-reaching than the current one. If this surprises you, coming from the Thomas B. Fordham Intitute, read on--but watch out. It looks like they want to drop this so the push can be made for national standards.

This argument has a lot of appeal.

by Mike Petrilli

Conventional wisdom around Washington says that the No Child Left Behind act (oops, I mean the Elementary and Secondary Education act) won't be reauthorized again next year. (Its update has been overdue since 2007.) That’s for several reasons. First, the political parties are at each other's necks, thanks to contentious (and partisan) debates around health care, energy policy, and the stimulus. That doesn’t set the table for bipartisan work on education. Second, there’s no clear path through the policy thicket that is NCLB/ESEA. With educators, conservatives on Capitol Hill, and a majority of the public now opposed to the law, how do you renew it in this environment without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? And third, overcoming these first two issues will take lots of political capital on behalf of President Obama--capital that is quickly diminishing.

But as a friend pointed out to me, why do we think 2011 (the Year of the Rabbit) will be any more auspicious for reauthorization? Maybe if Democrats get pummeled in the mid-terms, the President will do a midcourse correction and look for issues (like education) where he can work with Republicans in a centrist manner. But it's just as likely that the political environment will be as poisoned as ever, after a bruising campaign. And the policy challenges don't look any easier twelve months from now.

I see one way to reauthorize NCLB in 2010 and it's precisely to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's what many reformers fear most, but they're wrong. The next phase of education reform doesn't need a federal law that's even more prescriptive, more punitive, and more far-reaching than the current one. It needs three things instead. First, some humility that Washington isn't great at making change happen, especially via sticks. Second, it needs transparency--data about school performance that we can trust. And third, it needs incentives (i.e., competitive grants) for schools/districts/innovators to continue experimenting and to scale up successes.

If the effort to create common national standards and tests succeeds, and is adopted by a majority of the states, within a few years we could have credible, transparent information about how most schools in the country are truly performing. That would enable us to switch the federal role to a "tight-loose" approach that Secretary Duncan (and yes, those of us at Fordham) advocate, by rolling back NCLB's mandates around AYP, "highly qualified teachers," and all the rest. (We'd have some agreement at the national level about what kids should learn (the tight part) and could allow greater leeway over how to get them to learn it (the loose part).)

Let the states take the wheel again when it comes to deciding when interventions in failing schools are necessary and how to do them. Let schools take the wheel again when it comes to deciding how they should be staffed, what instructional practices to use, etc. And let Uncle Sam stay focused on offering incentive grants for promising innovations--and for producing and disseminating solid research and evaluation reports.

Editorial boards and sundry reformers will scream that this amounts to a "rollback" of NCLB’s tough-love approach. Let them scream, Mr. President--and use some of your remaining capital to explain why this more measured approach is actually the one more likely to succeed in getting our schools to the next level. Plus, it's also the one approach that could pass Congress in a bipartisan fashion, uniting educators on the Left with conservatives on the Right.

Go ahead, Mr. President--be a tiger.

— Mike Petrilli
Flypaper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute


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