Education Opinion

Fixing NCLB

By Jack Schneider — December 09, 2014 8 min read
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In this post, Jack and Andy Smarick take up the topic of No Child Left Behind, discussing flaws in the legislation and how they might be remedied in the reauthorization process.

Smarick: It looks like Congress may try to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. Whether either chamber can develop a consensus bill, whether a single bill can be embraced by both chambers, and whether the President would sign such legislation are all open questions.

Lots of very tricky issues will need to be worked out if this needle’s to be threaded. Maybe the biggest challenge is defining the proper relationship between the federal government and the states when it comes to K-12. Some on the right believe Uncle Sam should have very little say; they’d like the federal government to just stay out.

Two big things stand in the way of this. First, the feds send billions in Title I funds to states every year. Many policymakers have a hard to time accepting that states should get such vast sums of money and have no responsibility for showing that these dollars are being well spent or that kids are learning. Second, when states made virtually all K-12 decisions absent federal accountability rules—call this the “pre-NCLB” era—our nation didn’t get the results we wanted. Overall performance was largely stagnant, and too many disadvantaged kids were left behind.

As a conservative, I struggle with finding the right answer here. I think that state leaders should be able to control K-12 decisions within their borders so long as those decisions square with their states’ constitutional requirements and the requirements of the US Constitution. That means minimal meddling from federal officials. But I think the price of huge sums of federal funding is federal accountability (if states want Uncle Sam to stay out, those states can give up federal funds), and I’m leery of returning to the pre-NCLB era because too many disadvantaged kids weren’t well served.

What do you think?

Schneider: For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind did two good things: it made reporting on school performance more public; and it required the disaggregation of data by subgroups.

But any revision of the law has to address its weaknesses. It established unreasonable goals and then stigmatized schools for not meeting them. It punished low-performers, and in so doing made it harder for them to improve performance. It did nothing to build school capacity. And it defined achievement in an incredibly narrow way—focusing on test scores in math and English.

Additionally, the law constituted a major overreach. The federal government has no Constitutional authority over the schools. And federal dollars account for less than ten percent of the average public school budget. Yet the sanctions associated with the law were so severe that school agendas were often shaped by a single aim: meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress goals dictated by NCLB.

So I think a lot needs to be rolled back. Still, I don’t think we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In fact, I think addressing the weaknesses with NCLB would actually improve public reporting on school performance because schools would have less of an incentive to cheat.

I’d like to see the Department of Education mandate a reporting structure that provides a clearer sense of how schools are doing—one that includes more measures of performance than standardized test scores, and that better aligns with all of the things Americans want their schools to do.

I’d also like to see that reporting framework structured in a way that doesn’t inherently disadvantage schools working with high-needs and traditionally underserved students—one that would counteract many of the stereotypes that drive quality-conscious parents out of urban areas.

And finally, I’d like to see more federal support—channeled through the state or through the district—for schools that aren’t meeting their goals.

In short, I’d like to get rid of carrots and sticks, and instead construct a system built on transparency and support.

Smarick: I think you’ve caricatured important elements of NCLB. It didn’t “punish” low-performing schools. It identified them and required districts and states to provide them more support. And it’s simply not accurate to say it “did nothing to build school capacity.” After hitting “in need of improvement status,” struggling schools received more resources through “corrective action” into “restructuring” status and beyond. (Anyone incredulous should read Sections 1111 and 1116 of the law).

Now as far as NCLB’s “unrealistic goals,” I know its 100% proficiency target is now the subject of derision. And I’m happy to swear it off...as soon as any detractor goes with me to a school, points out all of the kids for whom proficiency is unrealistic, and then calls those kids’ parents to say we’re reducing the expectations for their children. The sad truth is that when we give up on 100%, we give up on actual boys and girls, and worse, we disproportionately expect less from poor and minority students.

Where you and I agree is that the law, by focusing primarily on math and reading scores, had the effect of distorting our collective sense of school effectiveness. Schools do much, much more than teach these two subjects, and accountability systems need to reflect that.

But you understand the law’s logic here. The federal government was limiting its own influence, essentially saying, “In exchange for all these federal dollars, we’re just asking you to show you’re succeeding in two core subjects.” Had the feds required results in more areas (in an effort to more fully capture all that schools do), the protests of federal overreach would’ve increased exponentially.

Now despite my conservative friends’ insistence that Uncle Sam get out of the business of student results, I can’t accept a federal-policy approach that amounts to, “Dear states and districts: Here’s $30 billion annually in federal funds. I hope things work out.” It is absolutely reasonable, and, in my view, simply responsible, for the federal government to require the recipients of such huge sums of federal dollars to show improved outcomes. That means some number of federally mandated performance metrics and some kind of consequences for persistent underperformance.

Now, I’d strongly prefer that states have a greater say in defining those metrics and that states make allowances for some local variation. This seems to me to be the only way to simultaneously respect state governments’ K-12 constitutional obligations and communities’ differing contexts and priorities. But I’m mindful that, prior to NCLB’s “overreach,” many states weren’t measuring student learning, weren’t disseminating information on school results, and weren’t acting decisively to address stagnating performance and yawning achievement gaps,

So let me put you in the place of a federal policymaker:

Congressman Schneider, you’ve said the federal government overreached with NCLB. What do you say to taxpayers and the parents of low-income students who worry that your “transparency-and-support-not-carrots-and-sticks” approach would, first, lead to gigantic federal spending without meaningful federal accountability and, second, return us to era of no meaningful consequences for schools poorly serving disadvantaged boys and girls?

Schneider: First, let’s be clear: NCLB did punish low-performing schools.

Perhaps most obviously, it punished low-performers by branding them. Now, I don’t purport to have an answer for the challenge of being transparent about performance without stigmatizing schools; but I think you can’t question the fact that a school identified as “in need of improvement” is going to struggle to retain quality-conscious parents and staff. That’s a dilemma that needs to be addressed.

Additionally, schools not meeting their AYP targets were forced to take Title I funds already being used to run the school and use those funds to do things like pay to transport kids to other schools and fund largely ineffective tutoring programs. Redirecting those dollars away from the instructional program makes it harder to improve. And it’s worth adding here that the resources schools received were largely not helpful.

The second point that I’d like to make here is that while 100% proficiency isn’t realistic in this policy environment, it doesn’t mean that such a goal is unrealistic in all policy environments. The theory of action behind NCLB was that, faced with accountability, educators would work harder and, as a consequence, all students would reach proficiency. But the flaws in that theory should be clear to everyone by this point. And, naturally, the goal wasn’t realized. If we’re serious about that goal, however, there are things we can do. But it will require addressing all of the issues that led to low-performance in the first place. It means doing a whole lot more than instituting an accountability scheme.

I’ll answer your last question by pointing to history. Prior to its reauthorization as “No Child Left Behind,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) did channel billions of federal dollars to high poverty schools without “meaningful accountability.” Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because the way we fund schools in this country—relying heavily on property wealth, which disproportionately favors the wealthy—is both unfair and unjust. It favors students who need less from their schools than their less privileged peers.

Now, is there a better way? Sure. Fund schools at adequate levels. Maybe we can talk about this in our next post.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.