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Published in Print: October 15, 2008, as What to Do With No Child Left Behind?

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What to Do With No Child Left Behind?

Why the Law Will Need More Than a Name Change

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Following the election, a new president and Congress will need to sit down and figure out what to do with President Bush’s signature piece of domestic legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act. The first order of business will be to come up with a new name. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., an architect of the legislation, has quipped that the NCLB brand has become so toxic that simply changing the name would pick up 100 votes for the legislation.

But then comes the hard work: fixing a law that has grown unpopular not only with those who have opposed standards, testing, and accountability all along, but also with supporters of standards-based reform who recognize that NCLB has taken the idea off track.

—Illustration by Laura Costas
—Illustration by Laura Costas

Originally, standards-based reform was driven by the idea that there was a big hole at the center of American education: a lack of agreement on what skills and knowledge students should master. Expectations varied widely between schools, and there was little outside pressure for anyone in the system—students, teachers, or principals—to work very hard.

In their influential 1991 paper “Systemic School Reform,” Marshall S. Smith and Jennifer O’Day suggested an alternative to this chaos: the establishment of standards, which would guide curriculum, testing, and teacher training and development. Standards-based reform also envisioned consequences for failing schools, including the right of students stuck in bad schools to transfer to better-performing ones. Many advocates of standards-based reform also recognized that asking schools to do what had never been done before—educating all students to high levels—would require substantially greater funding.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Although the No Child Left Behind Act was an outgrowth of the standards-based-reform movement, it departs in significant ways from the movement’s early ideals. Scholars in the field have proposed solutions to three central defects in the legislation—the underfunding of NCLB; the flawed implementation of its standards, testing, and accountability provisions; and the failure to provide students in low-performing schools a genuine opportunity to transfer to much better ones—for a recently released book, Improving on No Child Left Behind, which I edited. Here are some of their recommendations:

Funding. To date, most of the debate over the funding of No Child Left Behind has pitted Democrats, who point to the gap between authorized levels of funding and appropriations (which reached $70.9 billion by fiscal 2008), against Republicans, who respond that authorization levels provide a ceiling that is typically not met by appropriations. The discussion avoids the fundamental question: What is the true cost of NCLB’s goal of making all students academically proficient by 2014?

Federal funding would have to multiply many times over to help districts succeed in meeting even the intermediate goals of the legislation.

According to new research in the book, detailed by authors William Duncombe and John Yinger of Syracuse University and Anna Lukemeyer of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, federal funding would have to multiply many times over to help districts succeed in meeting even the intermediate goals of the legislation. They note that the costs of reaching 90 percent proficiency (short of the law’s ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency) will vary from state to state, depending upon the level of performance standard adopted, the local cost of living, and the demographic makeup of the student population. But based on a careful review of historical data on the relationship between spending and performance, and looking at four representative states, the researchers find that even if states increased funding by 15 percent and districts became 15 percent more efficient at spending resources (ambitious goals), federal Title I aid would have to be increased by 18 percent in Kansas, 129 percent in New York state, 547 percent in California, and a whopping 1,077 percent in Missouri to meet the goal of 90 percent student proficiency.

Standards, Testing, and Accountability. A coherent system of standards, testing, and accountability was to be the hallmark of standards-based reform, but as Lauren Resnick, Mary Kay Stein, and Sarah Coon of the University of Pittsburgh write in their chapter, the No Child Left Behind law is marked by myriad problems: the failure of states to develop clear and rigorous content standards for what students should know and be able to do; the poor quality of most state assessments that makes “teaching to the test” a big problem rather than a desired outcome; the varying state-by-state performance standards; the adoption of an arbitrary single standard of proficiency that is too high for some students with disabilities, and not high enough for gifted pupils; the incentive to focus most heavily on students who are on the cusp of becoming proficient, to the detriment of those far below or above the bar; and the failure to isolate the effects of family and the effects of school on student achievement.

Moreover, unlike the original vision for standards-based reform, the No Child Left Behind law contains only sticks and no carrots, the authors argue, creating a compliance mentality among teachers rather than spurring efforts to enhance student learning.

What is to be done? Establish clear and well-defined standards, set at the national level if possible, or by a small number of state consortia. Produce high-quality tests that are linked to these standards. Abolish the ludicrous goal of 100 percent proficiency to a single standard and, instead, set multiple standards with the goal of moving all segments of the distribution up at least one notch. Use well-constructed, value-added models of achievement that better measure what children are learning in school, as opposed to what they have learned before kindergarten or during summers off. And use carrots as well as sticks as incentives for students and teachers alike.

Student Transfers. The federal law has broken its promise to provide low-income students stuck in failing schools the opportunity to attend much-better-performing schools, because urban districts typically have very few good schools available to receive these students. As Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Jennifer Jellison Holme of the University of Texas at Austin explain in their chapter, to fix this problem NCLB should provide financial incentives to encourage high-performing suburban schools to accept transfers by low-income urban students.

Wells and Holme examine interdistrict integration programs in eight communities—Boston; East Palo Alto, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Rochester, N.Y.; and St. Louis—and conclude that carefully designed student-transfer programs can produce extraordinary outcomes for students. They find that low-income minority students can perform at high levels if given the right environment, but that NCLB’s current efforts—trying to make “separate but equal” work—are far less promising than programs providing low-income students a genuine opportunity to attend economically and racially integrated schools.


Failing to address the three central flaws of No Child Left Behind could undermine the standards-based-reform movement—and indeed, our entire system of public education. Critics of standards-based reform have always feared that the program was designed to facilitate privatization, and NCLB’s flawed system in many ways does set public schools up for failure. It requires 100 percent student proficiency without providing adequate resources. It fails to establish a coherent and sophisticated set of standards and assessments, and it holds schools accountable for factors beyond their control. And by failing to provide urban children stuck in underperforming schools with access to suburban schools, it plays into the argument that only private school vouchers can meet the demand for choice.

On the other hand, if standards-based reform is put back on track, it will drown out the wrongheaded calls for privatization. A well-constructed reauthorization bill—one that fully funded the ambitious goals of NCLB; provided coherent national standards tied to high-quality assessments and reasonable stakes for students and teachers; and included a genuine transfer option for low-income students to attend high-quality, middle-class suburban schools—would strengthen America’s public education system immeasurably.

Vol. 28, Issue 08, Pages 34,40

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