Federal Opinion

After the Election, What Will Happen to NCLB?

By Diane Ravitch — October 28, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

As this election nears a close, it is sad to note that very little has been said about education. In a way, that’s a good thing, as we really don’t want the president deciding what should happen tomorrow in our schools. I assume that more important tasks are at hand, such as the economy and foreign policy.

On the other hand, the candidates have been unfortunately silent in letting us know what they plan to do about the abominable No Child Left Behind law. By now, even its defenders understand that the people who must implement the law are hostile to it and know it is unworkable. Yet the candidates are silent. Clearly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which has existed since 1965 and is the main mechanism for funneling federal aid to education) must be reauthorized. No matter who is president, that law—whatever it is called—must be re-enacted.

The question is what to do about the special features of NCLB, especially those related to accountability, remedies, and sanctions. Will the federal government continue to require that all children must reach “proficiency” by 2014? Will it continue to mandate that states must test all children from grades 3-8, and once in high school, with tests of their own devising and standards of their own manufacture? Will the federal government continue to insist on “adequate yearly progress,” will it continue to label schools “failing” (or “schools in need of improvement) if they are not making adequate yearly progress towards 100 percent proficiency? Will the federal government continue to mandate choice and tutoring for “failing” schools? Will it continue to mandate such sanctions as turning schools over to state control, turning them into charter schools, turning them over to private management, and other kinds of “restructuring”?

As I re-read this paragraph, I realize that the amount of jargon being churned out by legislators is nearly overwhelming, that talking about schools and school improvement has become almost as arcane as a conversation between two medical technicians or third-year law students.

People who do not live inside the Beltway cannot imagine how strongly entrenched are the forces that demand reauthorization of NCLB, more or less in its present form. Many of the Beltway think tanks—more so Democrats than Republicans—seem to have a proprietary interest in NCLB and they jeer at anyone who wants to change it. The Republican think tanks are uneasy with the extent of federal interference and control of education that NCLB has legitimized. The Democratic think tanks think that any complaints about NCLB are the work of lazy, selfish interest groups who just don’t want to do the hard work of making 100 percent of our kids “proficient” by 2014.

Last weekend, I spoke to the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents about NCLB. The most common reaction was, “How do we express our views about this law without being characterized as just another selfish interest group?” It is a curiosity of our times that the views of the people who are actually supposed to do the work of educating children—the teachers, principals, and superintendents—are dismissed out of hand by NCLB’s defenders as those of self-interested pressure groups who don’t care about children. After all, why listen to the people who actually work in schools?

Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former official in the current Bush administration, is one of the few Beltway think-tankers who have begun to realize that NCLB is not working. He wrote an opinion piece last week in The Washington Times acknowledging that NCLB is “hugely unpopular with the bases of both political parties” and that there is “widespread buyers’ remorse.” He suggested that the federal government should stop micromanaging the schools; that it should provide incentives for states to sign up for national (but not federal) tests, then leave the states and districts to devise their own reforms, sanctions, labels, and ratings. This is somewhat akin to what I have suggested on this blog in the past, i.e., let the feds collect and dispense accurate information, and let the states and districts decide what to do about that information. (Full disclosure: I am a trustee of TBF and have known Mike Petrilli for many years.)

Since Mike Petrilli’s suggestion—to get rid of Washington’s heavy-handed micromanagement—was fairly close to my own (I am less certain than he is about the uses and misuses of test scores, even in the hands of state and school districts), I was glad to see his sensible proposal. However, Mike’s column was met with scorn by Andrew Rotherham, who blogs as eduwonk.com. Andy, who was an education adviser to President Clinton, said that Mike was a “reflexive contrarian,” and implied that he should back off his criticism of NCLB and recognize “the day to day realities of making policy...” NCLB, it seems, needs just a little tweaking, not radical change.

Petrilli is right, and Rotherham is wrong. In his article, Petrilli said that “Washington is at least three or four steps removed from the operation of local schools...” I would amend that to say, “Washington is at least 300 to 400 steps removed from the operation of local schools...” Here is a law written jointly by the Bush administration, and by Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller, and their staffs. This group of politicians and their advisers decided how to reform every school in the nation. What experience does Senator Kennedy or Congressman Miller have as school reformers? How many of their staff and advisers have ever led or turned around a failing school? How many years did any of them serve as teachers or principals? How many schools have they personally reformed? By what logic or evidence did they decide that turning “failing” schools over to state control or private managers or charters would make them high-performing schools? Did they read Hess and Finn’s “No Remedy Left Behind,” which shows that none of the federally mandated remedies are working? Did they read the latest report from the Center on Education Policy on restructuring, which says that congressionally mandated restructuring isn’t working?

I fear that the tenor of the current debate (or lack thereof) about federal education policy will only increase the burdens and ordeals of our public schools. When you have a debate in which those who are in the trenches are labeled as selfish “adult” interests (and therefore to be ignored), while those who know nothing are given responsibility to write the marching orders, you have a plan that will fail.


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