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NCLB Outrages

Children Will Be Left Behind

George Bush's school accountability law, enacted to much fanfare two years ago, is something of a fraud. It cannot possibly perform as advertised.

The No Child Left Behind law, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming majorities two years ago, has a giant problem--one that will cause the act to fail. But no one discusses this problem in public.

Even the law's fiercest critics--who now include just about all our country's prominent Democrats--seem not to have noticed the real problem. And it certainly will not be pointed up by such longtime enthusiasts as the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and numerous high-profile chief executives. They like the "accountability" the law promises to deliver. They like its incentive system, which steers funding to successful schools (as measured by test scores) and penalizes the failures. They like the higher standards for teachers, and the threat these pose to the teachers' unions. They are even learning to love the U.S. Department of Education, which now spends $55.6 billion a year administering No Child and other federal programs, and they are presumably pleased that Ronald Reagan welshed on his 1980 campaign promise to ax the agency.

Last year was the first in which the entire No Child machinery was up and running, and we learned a few things about how it will work. The then-current crop of news stories reflects the exasperation of local school officials, who did not expect so much paperwork and gripe about "unfunded mandates." Another familiar story line centers on the shock of administrators at first-rate schools when told they are "failing" (or at least that term keeps getting into the headlines).

The alleged failure often involves technicalities. No Child's authors were determined to forestall cheating by principals, many of whom had long boosted their schools' test scores by encouraging poor students to stay home on days when big tests were given. So the new law provided that 95% of all students--and in some cases 95% of each ethnic group within the school--had to participate. Inevitably, some schools were flunked because they only had, say, 94.6%. As this article goes to press, several states--Virginia, Minnesota and Utah among them--look like they might opt out of No Child, as the law allows them to do. Any such decision would mean a loss of some federal funding for education but would lift the new regulatory burden.

And yet the law's main problem continues to be unrepresented in the news stories. The problem is that some students are not smart enough to do well on tests. This might be considered too obvious to mention but for some astounding details about No Child. For openers, it proposes to eliminate--not reduce, eliminate--the "achievement gap" between prosperous and impoverished students. The gap is tremendous and in large measure reflects socioeconomic IQ differences. The states with the most students eligible for the federal free/reduced lunch program (a fairly good indicator of poverty status) reliably produce the lowest reading and math scores.

— Dan Seligman


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