SALT LAKE CITY, February 28, 2012—President Bush’s signature education reform has been serially abused by Democrats and Republicans alike.
The 2001 reauthorization of the Education Act, dubbed “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), got battered around pretty good in the last week’s GOP debate, and has been lambasted by Democrats and their liberal union allies since its passage.
Attacks usually rely on misrepresentations of the most demagogic sort.
Candidate Obama said in 2008, “Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year… and by the way if schools didn’t do well on those tests, the schools and the teachers could be punished, by losing funding.”
Accusations of funding cuts and shots at the straw man of “high stakes testing” are arrows in the rhetorical war over federal education policy. With nobody defending NCLB, it’s easy for misrepresentations and exaggerations to become misinformation.
It’s not much of a surprise that liberals largely oppose the law—it is a pretty conservative one, as far as federal mandates go. What it does is wholly unlike what its critics, including Rick Santorum and other Republicans who are on the record opposing it, would have us believe.
The principle feature of NCLB is an accountability regime based on state-administered, standardized tests given to at least three grade levels.
Before NCLB, many states administered such tests. States, school districts, and schools used the test data for a variety of purposes. Under NCLB, receipt of federal funds became conditional on those tests, so that if states accepted money under Titles 1, 2 or 3 of the education code, they would have to develop the tests and reporting systems as prescribed by the law. NCLB also required that states develop curriculum standards to which those tests would be aligned.
Additionally, states would need to start collecting data in a much more robust way than most had in the past. The new system has two main features.
First, data are now “disaggregated” so that state authorities can determine whether “sub groups” are making academic progress. Subgroups include economically disadvantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.
The idea was to prevent schools from masking underperformance among certain populations by showing vast improvements in majority populations.
Second, states had to devise a plan to quantify academic performance in the areas of math, language arts, and science. Not only did each school get a static score, but they had to measure yearly improvement. Thus a school that started out with high test scores in year one was under pressure to improve, even if only slightly, in subsequent years.
At every step in the new plan, the Federal Department of Education put the responsibility on states to devise tests, standards, and systems of assessments, even a method to determine whether schools made the mark. Thus, state education departments became the enforcers of the law’s particulars.
What NCLB does not do might come as a surprise to its harshest critics, and those members of the public who haven’t read the law.
The law did not cut funds for low performance. Nowhere in the nearly 700-page act is the federal government given authorization to close down a school or cut funding. In fact, NCLB expressly forbids it:
“The use of assessment items and data on any assessment authorized under this section by an agent or agents of the Federal Government to rank, compare, or otherwise evaluate individual students or teachers, or to provide rewards or sanctions for individual students, teachers, schools or local educational agencies is prohibited.” (Sec. 411(b)4(A).
NCLB doesn’t’ cut funding at all. In fact, federal outlays to implement the act doubled in its first six years. The Obama Administration has increased them even more since 2008. The way NCLB was conceived was to set up a strict accountability framework, provide funding, and let the states figure how to get schools to meet homegrown benchmarks.
If a school does not meet “adequate yearly progress” benchmarks, then new programs and additional funding streams are activated. For example, if a school fails to make state-mandated progress in two straight years, then the school is required to make tutoring available to struggling students. Money is made available to pay for the program.
After several years of stagnation, more severe sanctions are imposed on schools. One is reconstitution, whereby the governing authority–usually a district or state office of education–may reassign teachers and hire new administration.
By anyone’s measure, NCLB is a landmark piece of legislation. Critics say it has failed. But usually their favored alternative is to do away with accountability systems and put more money into the hands of teachers’ unions and dispose of charter school options and innovative performance strategies.
Why do politicians attack it, then? The Left is occupied by pro-union forces who see villains behind data that can potentially be used to demonstrate teacher competence (or incompetence); conservatives don’t like federal mandates or excessive federal involvement in schooling. But at the time NCLB was passed, one argument in its favor was that if the federal government handed out money, it should come at the cost of proving good stewardship of that money. If conservatives ever found the gastric fortitude to rein in spending and close the spigot of cash flowing from the Education Department to the several states, then the time would come when those states could safely ignore NCLB requirements.
No law is perfect, and NCLB’s critics often make good points. But more than any other domestic policy, it has been targeted unfairly by those driven by a contempt for all things Bush, and by those who don’t want to see meaningful education reform.
The best thing about NCLB is that, for once, the federal government tied data-driven accountability to federal dollars. That explains why liberals demonize the law, but it doesn’t speak well to conservatives who attack it.
Learn more about the author at Rich-Stowell.com
Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic Training; Tunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative.
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