No Child Left Behind: What Would Al Say?

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Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, was a founding father of the modern movement for standards-based education reform in the United States. Beginning in the late 1980s, until his death in 1997, Shanker was the most visible spokesman for creating a coherent system of education standards, testing, and accountability that eventually evolved into the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Shanker’s untimely death raises the question: What would the father have thought of his orphaned child?

No one can say for sure, but having spent the past several years researching and writing a biography of Shanker, I believe he would have backed the basic thrust of No Child Left Behind—greater resources in return for greater accountability—but would have fought to change several of the federal law’s deviations from his original vision for standards-based reform.


Today, the education standards movement—the call for educators to clearly outline content standards of what students should know, to test them to see how well they know it, and to make students and adults accountable for failure—dominates the American education policy landscape, but this was not always the case. For years, the United States was the outlier in the world, resisting standards, assessments, and consequences. Then, in the years following publication of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, a group of academics, including Marshall S. Smith, Diane Ravitch, and Chester E. Finn Jr., along with governors and business leaders from outside the world of education, sought to have states adopt standards-based reform. While most of the education establishment initially fought the effort, reformers found a surprising ally—indeed, a leader—in Al Shanker.

Shanker argued that there was a big hole at the center of American education: the lack of agreement on what skills and knowledge students should master. Teachers had textbooks but no real guidance on what to prioritize, so they ended up choosing very different topics to pursue, based on personal interests, creating incoherence and confusion. And there was little outside pressure for anyone in the system to work hard. As a former teacher, Shanker often told others that when he gave homework or a quiz, the class invariably shouted, “Does it count?” For the small number of students applying to selective colleges, grades mattered, but for the vast majority attending nonselective institutions, or going straight into the workforce, the truth was that doing well academically didn’t matter much.

For Shanker, an incentive structure that excluded students made no sense. Students, he wrote, "are unlikely to work harder when they’ve been told that if they don’t, their teachers will be punished."

Looking abroad, Shanker saw that many of America’s competitors in Europe and Asia had systems of standards, testing, and accountability that were producing higher levels of achievement and less inequality. The systems were coherent and made life more predictable for both teachers and students. Everyone knew in advance what was expected of them, and the system turned teachers and students from adversaries into allies. “It’s like the Olympics,” Shanker said. “There’s an external standard that students need to meet, and the teacher is there to help the student make it.”

Many fellow educators worried that if standards were set too high, producing high failure rates, it would pave the way for school privatization. But Shanker argued, to the contrary, that if public schools weren’t reformed, a system of private school vouchers was more likely to be adopted. A system of standards, testing, and accountability provided the right balance, he argued; it would combine the incentives of the private marketplace with democracy’s need for education to have a public character. Moreover, the American public would not support greater funding of public education without assurances of accountability.

Having said that, Shanker believed that there were good and bad ways to implement standards-based reform, and he raised serious concerns with the predecessor legislation to No Child Left Behind, President Clinton’s 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act. For one thing, the original legislation set unrealistic expectations, calling for “miraculous progress,” Shanker said. It was ridiculous, he said, to expect students achieving in the lowest quarter to quickly become “equal to the best students anywhere in the world.” Instead, multiple standards should be set to move all parts of the distribution upward, he argued. In addition, Shanker objected to provisions in the 1994 law that placed all the sanctions on the adults and none on students, the opposite of what European systems did. “Imagine saying we should shut down a hospital and fire its staff because not all of its patients became healthy—but never demanding that the patients also look out for themselves by eating properly, exercising, and laying off cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs,” he argued.

Following Shanker’s death, then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas campaigned in the 2000 presidential election for strong standards and accountability reform in education, and, on the stump, he frequently quoted Shanker on the need for high standards. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, passed with broad bipartisan support, offered the bargain that Shanker had championed—greater investment in K-12 public education in return for increased accountability—but it deviated substantially in the particulars from the system Shanker envisioned:

Consequences for Students. The No Child Left Behind Act provided consequences for schools and teachers (including the reconstitution of failing schools), but no direct consequences for students. A number of states on their own have adopted student stakes, but the law itself did not answer Shanker’s basic question for children: “Does it count?” For Shanker, an incentive structure that excluded students made no sense. Students, he wrote, “are unlikely to work harder when they’ve been told that if they don’t, their teachers will be punished.”

Multiple Performance Standards. No Child Left Behind set one standard for all American students—100 percent are to be proficient in math and reading by 2014—that’s precisely the type of unrealistic goal to which Shanker objected. He predicted that the result of a single standard was either enormous failure rates, which were designed to undermine public schools and pave the way for privatization, or a dumbed-down standard, which could be achieved but would provide no challenge to more-advanced students. He argued, instead, for a European-style system, which sets multiple standards so that students at all academic levels have an incentive to work hard and improve.

National Content Standards. Shanker pushed for national standards and assessments. “Should children in Alabama learn a different kind of math or science from children in New York?” he asked. After President Bill Clinton proposed national reading and math tests in his 1997 State of the Union address, he telephoned Shanker, then ailing from cancer, and acknowledged his intellectual debt to the union leader. While the No Child Left Behind Act asserts a new, strong federal role in education, it largely lets states set standards and assessments, leaving in place the “50 different education systems” that Shanker decried.

Quality Standards and Assessments. Shanker called for a carefully planned system of clearly articulated standards tied to high-quality assessments. Indeed, the AFT rated state standards for quality and published examples of European assessments that often called for open-ended, sophisticated responses. But under NCLB, many states have skipped over the difficult step of providing clearly articulated standards to guide teachers and students. Moreover, because the law requires so much testing—every year for grades 3-8—many states have employed commercial multiple-choice tests, which are cheaper and quicker to administer.

Albert Shanker knew that getting standards-based reform right was going to be very difficult, and in a 1993 forum in Boston predicted it would take decades to perfect. Today, many educators wish that he had stayed around longer to help guide the process.

Vol. 27, Issue 2, Pages 28, 36

Published in Print: September 5, 2007, as No Child Left Behind: What Would Al Say?
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