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Diane Ravitch Headshot

The Future of NCLB

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The federal education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is due to be renewed this year, but political insiders in Washington predict that Congress will not take action until after the next Presidential election in 2008.

The legislation is hugely controversial among educators, but not in the halls of Congress. Although it is referred to as President Bush's signature education policy, it passed in late 2001 with strong bipartisan majorities. Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) in the Senate and Congressman George Miller (CA) led the Democrats in writing the law and approving it.

The law passed soon after 9/11, and Congress was eager to show national unity. The U.S. Senate voted in its favor by 87-10, and the U.S. House of Representatives supported it by 381-41. It won the votes of Senate Republicans by 44-3 and House Republicans by 183-33. Senate Democrats voted for the law by 43-6, and 198-6 in the House.

Since then, Democrats have complained that the law was underfunded, although it did substantially increase federal aid to schools attended by poor kids. Meanwhile, Republicans have long been suspicious about the way the law expands the power of the federal government in local schools, and recently more than 50 Republican members of the House and Senate announced their opposition to key parts of the law. Whenever the law comes to a vote in the future, it is far likelier to get Democratic votes than Republican votes because of Republican hostility to the federal role in education. Indeed, respected liberal groups in Washington, D.C. , such as Education Trust and the Center for American Progress, strongly support the reauthorization of NCLB, but with more funding.

The biggest gripe of educators is that the law has turned public schools into testing factories. They complain that the only subjects that matter anymore are reading and math, and that other subjects and activities have been crowded out. The usual phrase is that the curriculum has been narrowed. They also say that the heavy emphasis on testing has placed too much reliance on multiple-choice, standardized tests, which test only a narrow range of skills. Moreover, educators complain that the schools are drowning in red tape manufactured in Washington as they try to sort through the many mandates and sanctions imposed by NCLB.

So what does the law do? Here is a thumbnail sketch of a complex law:

The law is intended to focus attention on the lowest-performing students by mandating annual testing from grades 3 through 8 in reading and math and reporting the test results by individual subgroups so that the public can see the progress--or lack thereof--of ethnic and racial groups, low-income; disabilities; and limited English proficiency. Starting this year, states are supposed to test students in science as well, at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. Each of the various subgroups is expected to make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress" towards proficiency. The law declares that each state must set a course of academic improvement so that 100% of students achieve proficiency in reading and math by the year 2014. Each state is allowed to choose its own standards and tests. And every other year, the federal government tests a sample of students in every state on the federal test called the National Assessment of Education Progress, so that it is possible to compare the federal test results with whatever claims the states are making.

When NAEP results for the states are placed alongside the states' own results, the contrast is alarming. Typically the states say that 70-80% of their students are proficient, but on the federal tests (given only in grades 4 and 8), only 35-40% are proficient. Either the states' standards are too low or the NAEP standards are too high. But one thing is certain: there are few states (only 5, at last count) that matched the high standards of the national exams.

The law has specific sanctions for schools and school districts that fail to make "adequate yearly progress." After two years of failing to meet the benchmark for any subgroup, a school is deemed "in need of improvement" (but is referred to in the media as "a failing school") and must offer choice to another public school in the same district; after three years, the school must offer tutoring (or "supplementary education services"). The sanctions in the law grow increasingly onerous. By the fifth year, the school must be restructured; this means either that it is turned into a charter school; all or most of the staff is replaced; a private company is hired to manage the school; or the state takes over the management of the school.

Obviously there are many other important aspects to this law, such as its requirement that all schools have "highly qualified teachers," as well as a $1 billion program called Reading First, which allows states and districts to apply for grants to promote phonics-based reading instruction (but does not require them to do so).

As I said at the outset, most observers think that Congress will wait until after the election, when there is a new administration, to act on NCLB.

Meanwhile there are a few things about it that are already clear.

First is that the goal of 100% proficiency for every student in the United States is unattainable. The fact is that no nation or state has ever achieved 100% proficiency. The only way to reach such a goal is to redefine "proficiency" to mean functional literacy.

To be sure, it is nice idea to set your sights high, but the way this law works, the unattainable goal virtually guarantees that every year the number of public schools declared to be "failing schools" in need of improvement will grow as the goal of 100% proficiency recedes. Since a school is declared to be "in need of improvement" if only one subgroup slips behind schedule, many fine schools across the nation have found themselves on that list and seen their reputation unfairly tarnished.

Second, it is also clear that the sanctions mandated by NCLB are not working. At a conference in November 2006 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. , a series of commissioned papers by outstanding scholars and journalists reviewed what is happening in a variety of districts across the nation (the papers are listed here). The papers vividly demonstrated that, for a variety of reasons, only tiny proportions of students (often less than 5% of those eligible) were availing themselves of either choice or tutoring services. Among other reasons, it turned out that in many districts, there were simply not enough places available in better schools or students did not want to leave their school or the school was not making the information available. So too with the tutoring, few students were taking advantage of the service, for a variety of reasons.

Third, and for me of great importance, is the fact that there is no reason that the sanctions delineated in the law will necessarily produce better results. Will a school get better if the staff is replaced? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if it is turned into a charter school? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if it is handed over to a private management company? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if the state takes it over? Here we can say with certainty that no state has any track record of taking over low-performing schools and turning them into high-performing schools.

So, I question why the federal government has written a law imposing sanctions that have no basis in experience.

The law will be reauthorized. That much seems sure. So those of us who care about the future of education must come up with suggestions to minimize its negative effects and make it a better law.

Here is my proposal to Congress.

In the future, the federal government should do only what the federal government can competently do. Its historic role has been three-fold: one, to collect and disseminate information about the condition and progress of education in these United States; two, to write checks help schools educate specific groups of students, especially those who are poor and have disabilities; and three, to enforce civil rights laws.

Those are the principles that should be the underpinnings of the reauthorized NCLB.

First, the federal government should establish national standards in basic academic subjects (reading, mathematics, science, and history). Second, it should annually administer national examinations in those subjects. Third, it should make the results available to states and school districts.

It should be left to the states to decide which actions to take in response to this information. The states, working with the school districts, should decide which combination of rewards and sanctions will improve student achievement.

We should, in this instance, use the states as laboratories of democracy. Since we do not know which rewards and sanctions will have the most salutary effects, we need to let the states work with educators to try different approaches. When there is a clear pattern, other states and districts will learn from the experiences of others who are successful as well as those that are not.

One of the benefits of this approach is that the states will be relieved of the cost and burden of testing, as the whole cost and burden will shift to the federal government. Another benefit will be that all of the red tape and mandates associated with NCLB will disappear overnight.

Knowing the ways of Washington, I am doubtful that my solution will find a warm reception. Just last month, a bipartisan commission funded by the Gates Foundation and co-chaired by former Governor Roy E. Barnes of Georgia (Dem.) and former Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin (Rep.) proposed a vast expansion in the number and reach of mandates associated with the education law.

But if we truly want good schools and well-educated students, we won't get them by piling on more mandates and regulations. The recipe for good education involves a solid curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing students, and cultural support and encouragement for education. Washington can pick up some, but not all, of this responsibility.