‘Top-Down’ Politics Turned NCLB Into Monster

September 17, 2008 1 min read

With Monday’s news that there’s a 10,000 pound gorilla called NCLB, I decided to go out and look for it.

I made stops at an Aspen Institute forum and a Department of Education advisory board meeting. I never found that gorilla.

By yesterday I was asking: Why is it that NCLB is seen as a monstrosity on the campaign trail but not in Washington?

I think I’ve got an answer, thanks to Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation. Dannenberg, who helped write the law as a staff member for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., explained to me that the politics of NCLB are more “top-down” than “left-right.”

He means that the policy elites in Washington—President Bush, Sen. Kennedy, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to name a few—endorse the general principles of the law: standards, testing, accountability for results. You can also put states leaders such as governors and chiefs into that group.

But people on the ground who have to put those things into practice resist them. They don’t necessarily believe that tests deliver results that should be used for accountability and see NCLB supplanting the decisions they’ve usually made.

That’s why events where Washington policy folks (like the one put on by Aspen on Monday; see here for some complaints about the lopsided agenda) invited the speakers, the message on NCLB is upbeat. It’s also why the NEA and AFT are fighting to change the law; their members on the ground are demanding it.

It’s also why Barack Obama and John McCain are either ignoring NCLB or are making promises to change it. When one of them moves into the White House, which side will they choose? The Washington leaders (aka the top) or the teachers, school board members, and district leaders (aka the down)?

P.S. Dannenberg points out that some NCLB issues follow the traditional left v. right debate. Funding and vouchers are the best examples.

A version of this news article first appeared in the NCLB: Act II blog.